Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2019
Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:16-13, Luke 21:5-19
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Everything Jesus talks about in our gospel reading for today has either happened already or is happening right now.
There is nothing left of the Temple in Jerusalem except about sixty feet of one limestone wall. From time to time people continue to come in the name of Jesus saying they know when the end of the world is coming, and inexplicably they always manage to gain some followers. We continue to hear of wars and insurrections. Nations continue to rise up against nations. There continue to be great earthquakes and famines and plagues. Many families are divided and broken. The church faces all kinds of challenges: everything from apathy and unbelief to cultural hostility to outright persecution, depending on where you live.
It is hard to distinguish our gospel reading from what you might read online any day of the week. It is hard to distinguish what Jesus says here and what you might see in any given moment on a 24-hour news channel, right? Jesus is brutally honest about the world we live in. He is exceedingly accurate in describing the things that have and continue to come to pass.
All of this could lead to despair. For many it already has. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that despair is one of the great plagues of our time. We see the symptoms all around us in all kinds of self-destructive behaviors. Sociologists are pointing to what they call “diseases of despair,” things like alcoholism and overdoses and suicides, as the reason the life expectancy in our country has gone down every year for the past few years. Despair is a real plague in our time!
Hopelessness is a real problem as well. I have been saddened to see many stories circulating recently about how many young people today have already decided that they won’t have children because of fears about climate change. Now I’m all for a clean environment and good stewardship of the earth – as Christians we all should be! Our own scriptures tell us God created us out of the soil, and that we are caretakers of this garden. But there is an alarmism out there that is feeding a sense of hopelessness. That young people would be so lacking in hope that they would give up on bringing children into the world is just sad to me. Sad and wrong.
Thankfully, there’s more going on in our gospel reading for today than Jesus being honest and accurate about the world we live in. Jesus also tells us how to live in a world like this.
First of all, Jesus tells us not to be led astray by end-times alarmists and their predictions. “Do not go after them,” Jesus says.
Jesus says that when we hear of wars and insurrections, to not be afraid. These kinds of things will happen, but the end is yet to come. They will not go on forever!
When the church is struggling or facing hostility or is under attack, Jesus encourages us to see it as an opportunity! We are encouraged to see those situations as an opportunity to testify with words that he himself will give us!
When all the tumult of the world is swirling around us, Jesus encourages us to keep the faith, to hold fast to his promises. “Not a hair on your head will perish,” Jesus says. Some of you are scratching your heads with that comment, wondering where all that beloved hair went! What Jesus means is that God will preserve you completely. If that means he’ll have to grow back some hair on you someday, he’ll do it! He’s coming again to renew all things! Jesus calls us to endure in this promise – for by this endurance we will gain our souls.
And so our Lord Jesus calls us to hope. He calls us to faith. He calls us to live in joyful anticipation of the new day he is bringing.
This faith is not a passive thing. It is not inactive or lazy. It does not sit around twiddling its thumbs, ignoring our neighbors as we wait for Jesus to return and fix everything. That’s what our reading from 2 Thessalonians is all about.
As I mentioned last week, one of the major issues Paul is addressing in his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica is questions about the end times. Some in Thessalonica believed it had already come. Others believed it was happening any day. And it seems that some of those who believed the Day of the Lord was just around the corner used it as an excuse to give up on the business of living as a productive member of society! If Jesus was coming again, probably next week, why bother going to work? Why bother investing in your family? Why bother serving your community? Why not just sit back and wait?
Most scholars believe this is what is behind Paul’s words in our reading for today when he scolds those in Thessalonica who are living in idleness, not doing any work. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” Paul says! Now it is possible that these were just lazy freeloaders who were living off the charity of the church – that is possible! – but given the context of the letter it appears more likely that there was a group of Christians there in Thessalonica who had kind of checked out of life because they thought the return of Jesus was imminent. Paul addresses them, saying, “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and earn their own living.” And then to everyone in Thessalonica Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
“Do not be weary in doing what is right.” These words are for us too!
I know how easy it is to fall into the despair plaguing our society. We too are prone to the kind of hopelessness we so often see around us. And it can be paralyzing. It can sap our strength. It can cause us to want to check out of the world around us and give up on the work God calls us to do.
But today God says to us through the apostle: “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” We are called to work and to carry out our callings and to do what is right – all with good hope, all in joyful anticipation of the day when Christ will make all things new.
We do right by serving our neighbors and loving our families and doing our jobs.
We do right by caring for God’s good earth. We reduce and reuse and recycle, we strive to be green and clean – not out of fear, but out of love for our Creator and trust that he will ultimately renew the earth.
Some do right by having babies! There is nothing more hope-inducing than a newborn baby! Rather than fear for their future, dream with them about how they will do right for others.
We do what is right for the church even as we struggle. Rather than being paralyzed by how the culture around us is changing, rather than remaining idle while we face decline and sometimes hostility, we invite, we reach out, we bear witness, we testify – trusting our Lord’s promise that he will be with us to give us the words.
As Martin Luther himself once wrote, “Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,” so brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right!
We don’t find this strength and this hope in ourselves. Cable news and the internet certainly don’t give it to us.
We find this strength and hope to do what is right through God’s promises to us. We find this strength and hope through the promise that he has the future in his hands. We find it in the promise that the Day of the Lord is coming, and that when it does, all will be well at last.
As God tells us through the prophet Malachi: “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
As God says to us through Jesus, “Do not be terrified by what you see going on around you. The end is yet to come.” And, “Not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
So be of good hope, friends. Jesus is coming again. In the meantime, we have work to do!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church