Sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2018, Proper 28 – “A Time of Trouble Such as There Never Was” (Daniel 12:1-3, Mark 13:1-13)

Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

The Last Judgment from the church at Haukipudas, Finland

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine walking around the Mall and Capitol Hill on a beautiful spring day, the Capitol dome shining bright white in the sun, the bright marble and simulated stone of the museums and federal buildings glinting, their majesty dwarfing the seas of tourists and workers moving swiftly about among the cars and tour buses.  And high above it all, the Washington Monument piercing the sky.  It’s a glorious sight, and you feel small surrounded by these buildings— these temples, really, to American government, history, and culture.  You can’t help but gawk at them in their size and grandeur.  “What stones!  What buildings!”

Now imagine them all torn to the ground, utterly destroyed, the Capitol dome in ruins, the Washington monument laid out, the stones spread apart because it was not built with mortar.  The Library of Congress (my favorite building on the Hill—please don’t tell my old colleagues at the Smithsonian) a smoking hulk, the busts of authors that ring the building ripped down.  Utter and total desolation, and nary a soul wandering the destroyed streets.  The beautiful city is gone, destroyed, its majesty a mere memory.  The power concentrated there, gone forever, never to return.

This is the sort of destruction that the city of Jerusalem experienced in the year 70 after the Roman general Titus (later made emperor) took the city following a long siege.  The city’s walls were torn down, the Temple destroyed, its treasury carried off to Rome.  Literally, not one stone stood upon another, and all that exists of the Temple today is its Western Wall which is left standing above ground.  You can still see a depiction of the destruction and sacking of the city on the Arch of Titus on the Roman Forum to this day.  The Roman soldiers are displayed as victors bringing home the spoils, and the Jews are shown as prisoners and slaves, a defeated people.

The fate Jerusalem suffered was something that was inconceivable to the Jews of the 1st Century.  How could their great city, a holy city, beloved by God and home to his temple, fall prey to destruction again?  How could the whole thing be brought low?  But this is what Jesus tells the disciples.  The city will be destroyed someday, and its destruction will be but one of the harbingers of the last days.  And this won’t even be the worst thing to happen, not by a long shot.  There will be wars and rumors of wars, internecine conflict, earthquakes, famines, antichrists, religious strife, familial fighting.  Parents will turn on their children because those children trust Christ, and children on their parents for the same reason.  These things will all happen before the last day, and those who persevere in faith in Christ will be saved from the tribulation.

And the last day is coming.  The prophet Daniel, writing in the 6th Century BC while Judea was in exile in Babylon, spoke of its coming in our Old Testament reading this morning:

12:1And at that time Michael will take up his place, the great angel, who is the supporter of the children of your people: and there will be a time of trouble, such as there never was from the time there was a nation even till that same time: and at that time your people will be kept safe, everyone who is recorded in the book. 2And a number of those who are sleeping in the dust of the earth will come out of their sleep, some to eternal life and some to eternal shame.

According to Daniel, things are going to get bad.  Really bad.  So bad that no one has ever experienced anything like it before.  So bad that people really can’t fathom how terrible things will actually be.  Things had been bad for Daniel.  He lived in exile in a kingdom far from his homeland and had almost been killed on one occasion for his faith in YHWH, his God.  His Jerusalem had been destroyed by a foreign army, his temple torn down, and the kingdom of Judah left in shambles.  The northern kingdom of Israel had been obliterated, its people carried off by the Assyrians and replaced by colonists.  Things did not look good in Daniel’s world.  But they would get worse.  A more horrendous day is coming, and with it, the day of judgment, when God will cause some to awake to everlasting life, and some to “shame and everlasting contempt.”

But when will this be?  Daniel says it is still coming.  So does Jesus; a time will come when the whole world is rent by wars and tragedies, famines, hunger, and strife; a day when the Gospel will not be tolerated.  And ever since it has been prophesied, countless people have been on the lookout for the last day, the day of judgment, though it seems to elude us.  Experiencing the persecution of his own era, the Apostle Paul hoped it would come in his lifetime.  Numerous church fathers predicted the end would come in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.  In 793, signs and portents seemingly in accord with the end of days were experienced in England and recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:

This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island [Lindisfarne, if you’ve been to England], by rapine and slaughter.

The last day didn’t come in 793, but rather, the Vikings did.

The Viking raid on Lindisfarne.  Not apocalyptic, but it sure felt like it.

When the year 1000 came, many people expected the end to come with the millennium. In 1284, Pope Innocent III stated that the end would come 666 years after the rise of Islam.  By the early 1500s, even Martin Luther was expecting the “letztes Tag,” the end of days, to come, if not in his lifetime, then by the end of the century, given that the preaching of the Gospel was being suppressed by the papal faction within the church and violence was everywhere.  And even now, we have seen the world wracked by increasingly terrible wars and violence, with the twentieth century alone seeing more mass death than almost any other century in recorded memory.  In my own lifetime, the United States has been involved in seemingly continual warfare in the Middle East and Central Asia.  There have been terrible natural disasters here and abroad, and famines and disease outbreaks (most recently Ebola).  In the last few weeks we’ve seen arsons and shooting sprees, great wildfires engulfing the west.  Are these signs of the last day?  The coming judgment?  Christ’s return in glory and the raising of the dead?  These are all the sorts of things that Jesus and Daniel spoke of as signs, and yet no-one, not even Christ himself, knows when that final day will come.  And all these things are bad, really terrible and awful.  Does it mean that something even more terrible and awful is on the way?  Christians around the globe are being persecuted.  Is persecution coming for us, too?  Is it already here and we’re just blind to it?

On the other hand, it’s easy to become jaded or complacent in the face of constant calamity.  It’s easy to think about the last day being off in some far away, nebulous future, nowhere near us.  The disciples certainly were not thinking with that sort of urgency.  “Isn’t this city grand, Jesus?  Aren’t all these buildings amazing?”  For them, Jerusalem has been here forever— since before the days of Abraham— and it will go on for a long time into the future.  If the last day is far off, why worry?  This is the complacency the Pharisees fell into, the sort of complacency that allows a person to get comfortable with making himself look good while disregarding God’s word.  It’s the sort of complacency that allows a person to get comfortable with sin, or act like the judgment isn’t real, or if it is, won’t be coming for a long time, so who cares?  It’s a hedonistic complacency that lulls a person into a false sense of security where he believes that the end will come, eventually, but not for him.

It seems to me that we’ve fallen into this false sense of security regarding the last day.  Sure, we acknowledge it when we say the Creeds— “He will come again to judge the living and the dead…I believe in the resurrection of the body”—but we function as if it isn’t real or as if it’s not coming.  The hymns we selected to put in our hymnal reflect this.  Professor David Adams at Concordia Seminary once pointed out in a sermon on Zephaniah 1 that we no longer have hymns in our hymnal proclaiming God’s coming judgment, that we have functionally stopped believing in divine judgment.  He notes, “In our 1941 hymnal there was a section of eight hymns entitled, “Final Judgment.”  In our 1976 hymnal, there was a section of three hymns.  In our current hymnal, there is no section entitled, “Final Judgment.””

Any hymns we do have that deal with the subject speak of Christ’s coming in glory, but they step around the issue of the judgment itself.  We no longer sing the Dies Irae, the great 6th-century hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great, titled in the Lutheran Hymnal, “Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning.”  Look it up sometime— it’s hymn 607.

Sing along!

We seem to no longer really believe that a judgment is coming when we will have to give an account of our lives and when God will mete out his judgment on a sinful humanity.  Along with this, we seem to no longer believe that we necessarily have committed sins that God views as worthy of his wrath.  God doesn’t really draw distinctions between venial and mortal sins—those sins we commit just by living and those we commit by intent— all sins are equal in his eyes.    Every day in every way, we violate the Ten Commandments in some capacity.  We violate the first commandment when we put our whole trust in something that isn’t God.  We violate the second when we speak God’s name inappropriately.  We violate the third when we neglect God’s word and teaching.  We violate the fourth when we dishonor our parents and those whom God has put above us.  We violate the fifth when we hate others or do little to help them.  We violate the sixth when we fantasize about other people.  We violate the seventh when we try to leverage the odds in our favor or take more than our fair share.  We violate the eighth when we prefer to think the worst of others.  And we violate the ninth and tenth when we wish we had things which did not belong to us.  These all don’t seem very terrible; in fact they seem quite small compared to the “big” sins of blasphemy, murder, rape, or grand larceny, but before God they are all worthy of the same reward: death.  And when we act like our sins, big and small, are no great deal, we violate every commandment because we do not act as if God is serious about what he tells us will happen. And then we are seriously in trouble, because it means that we may be among those who will be subject to “eternal shame.”  The final judgment is a real and terrible thing.  “Day of wrath, o day of mourning! /  See fulfilled the Prophet’s warning, / Heav’n and earth in ashes burning.”

Tympanum depicting the Last Judgment, Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay

If this scares you, well, it should.  God’s judgment is not something to take lightly.  It’s terrible, and we all deserve it.  Who will deliver us? “What shall I, frail man, be pleading?  / Who for me be interceding / When the just are mercy needing?

Here Daniel speaks good news: And at that time your people will be kept safe, everyone who is recorded in the book.  Michael, God’s great archangel, will beat back the devil’s final attack upon God’s people, his Israel, and all those whose names are in “the book” will be preserved and saved, and God will raise them to eternal life with him.  And who are these whose names are in the book?  They are the ones who are in Christ, who have faith in him.  They are the ones who trust in the work of the Son of God, who believe that his death and resurrection has been for them.  Their sins may have made them worthy of condemnation before God, but his sacrifice on the cross has won them and made them his own.  They are marked by his blood and so are written in the Book of Life.  They are the elect, and the devil in his schemes cannot touch them.  When they suffer for Christ’s sake— when all turn against them and persecute them— they will be preserved and will persevere.  He will not desert them.  They are his forever, and they will be raised to everlasting life.  They will endure to the end and be saved.

This is what Jesus tells the disciples.  Calamities will come, destruction will come.  Antichrists will come speaking as if they are the Messiah, attempting to deceive the children of God and bring them to destruction.  Christ’s enemies will beat and slay those who trust in him in attempts to harm their faith, but he will preserve them.  Trusting in him, they will be raised up to eternal life.  They will be kept inviolate.  And they will shine brightly in the Lord’s glory forever.

This is the promise that Christ extends to us in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper.  Though we are sinners, his death and resurrection is for us as well.  The promise belongs to you and to me.  If we trust in him and understand that his death and resurrection have bought eternal life for us, we can take comfort in knowing that we are saved from that fate of “shame and eternal contempt.”  The terrors of the final days and the last judgment can harm our bodies and our minds, but they will not touch our souls; Christ will keep us safe in him and will bring us into his kingdom, raising us up to eternal life with him.  This is the promise, and as Luther says, if you believe it, you have it.  In Christ, eternal life and salvation is yours— now— today!  He will not forsake you, even if you are subject to “a time of trouble, such as there never has been since there was a nation.”  You are his, and in that you can rejoice.

May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2018 – Proper 8 (Lamentations 3:22-33; Mark 5:12-43)

Originally preached at Trinity Lutheran Church, Ithaca, New York.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It’s been a while since I last lived in Ithaca, but something I remember from my time attending Cornell University is that many of the roads around and through campus were under constant construction, as were many buildings.  You all remember, of course, especially those of you who are faculty members, how interminable the work on Klarman Hall seemed to be, as well as the seemingly perpetual closing-off of East Avenue. I think the only time I ever actually was able to drive my car down East Avenue happened the day I moved into my apartment on Hasbrouck, and I never got to drive down East Avenue again.  Nearly three years later, it looks like I still can’t drive all the way down East Avenue due to road work. I guess I will have to wait a while longer yet. And now the architecture school is being renovated!

Waiting.  We do a lot of it.  Waiting in line. Waiting in traffic.  Waiting for phone calls. Waiting for an important email.  Waiting in the doctor’s office to be told the same thing your doctor tells you every time you go in for a physical (“You need to lose weight!”).  Waiting for the car to be done in the shop. Waiting for that final student’s paper to be submitted so you can get on with grading. Waiting for a table.  Waiting for that Amazon Prime package that had two-day shipping, except it’s been three days since you ordered it. Waiting in the rain for the dog to stop sniffing everything and “go.”  Waiting is an integral part of our everyday lives. We probably “hurry up and wait” more than we actually “get a move on” most days.

But then there is another kind of waiting.  The interminable waiting that is full of pain and fear.  Waiting for critical medical or other test results. Waiting for an end to physical pain that seems interminable.  Waiting for peace in a war torn land. Waiting for neighbors to be civil to one another again. Waiting for death and a peaceful release.  Waiting to be reunited with those who have died and left a hole in your heart the size of a doorway. And this waiting can be heavy, seemingly endless.  It can be maddening and saddening. It can leave one feeling spread pretty thin, down, and defeated.

“Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem,” (1870) by Ilya Repin (1844-1930), Tretyakov Gallery.

It is this kind of waiting–this long waiting–that the author of Lamentations–likely, according to Jewish and church tradition, the prophet Jeremiah–had to endure.   Jeremiah, living in Judah (modern day Israel), had seen the once-mighty Assyrian Empire of northern Iraq, which had in previous decades defeated and carried off the population of the kingdom of Israel to the north and had treated Judah as something of a subject state since at least the 660s BC, begin to crumble under the pressure put on it by the rapidly ascending Babylonian Empire to the south and east.  For a few years in Jeremiah’s young manhood, Judah stood independent, but as the seventh century came to a close, Egypt and Babylon vied for control over Judah as a client state. Jeremiah would have seen pro-Egyptian and pro-Babylonian factions in Jerusalem vie for power and influence while the armies of Egypt and Babylon fought in and around Judah. Jerusalem itself became a target when pro-Egyptian agents convinced King Jehoiakim to declare his independence from Babylonian vassalship in 601/600 BC.  Babylon responded in force. After three years of razing the countryside, sieges, and fomenting unrest in Jerusalem (even, perhaps, bringing about Jehoiakim’s assassination), the city surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and the new king, Jehoiakim’s brother Jehoiakin, his mother the Queen, the court, and the city’s artisans, were hauled off to Babylon in 597. Another king, Zedekiah, was placed on Jerusalem’s throne, but his rule was not fully accepted by the remaining people of Judah. By the end of his reign in 589, unrest in Jerusalem resulted in another military action against Judah, ending in the sacking and burning of Jerusalem in 587 and the slaughter and enslavement of its citizens.  Jeremiah watched this all happen, as he had been held captive by the Babylonians, but he and a group of others escaped and sought asylum in Egypt, where they settled, exiled from a home that no longer existed. Jeremiah had watched his nation vanish like a puff of smoke, and he longed to go back. But he was forced to wait for that day in the future when his people might be able to return. But that was all he could do as a refugee in a foreign land. The first two chapters of Lamentations record the pain of losing his homeland and the desire to return, someday.

“The Woman with an Issue of Blood” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum.

We see this waiting, too, in Mark’s account of the woman with the unhealable hemorrhage.  Mark tells us that this woman had been suffering from this endless bleeding for twelve years, despite the countless interventions of doctors and surgeons.  We often think of the ancient world as being less advanced medically than we are, but surgically, the understanding of physicians working in the 1st Century Mediterranean was quite advanced, perhaps sometimes almost as good as our own thanks to a temporary lifting of the ban on human dissections by Queen Berenike II of Alexandria in the third century BC.  (We often think that the medieval church disapproved of dissecting human corpses, but this was not the case–it was the pagans who disapproved of the practice.) The anatomical manuals by the physicians Hierophilus and Erasistratus that resulted from this lifting of ban–now sadly lost to time–were considered so accurate that they stood as the main anatomy texts used by physicians for several hundred years.  While the surgical breakthroughs of Galen were still about 90 years away, the surgeons and gynaecologists that this woman might have seen could have been competent enough to deal with many complicated diagnoses and procedures thanks to these manuals. But this bleeding defied their expertise, and regardless of the number of regimens she tried, regardless of the number of times she went under the knife, this woman found no cure and no relief.  For twelve years she waited for a cure, spent all her savings, and had all but given up hope for an end to her suffering.

Waiting.  Waiting for an end of pain and an end of heartache.  And why be subject to this pain? Why were Jeremiah and this woman, though separated by hundreds of years, experiencing the pain of prolonged and seemingly endless suffering?  What is the root of this longing, this waiting we all face, whether it be from war or disease or displacement? We laugh because we know what the good Lutheran answer often is to this question, but it’s true.  It’s sin. Jeremiah’s long waiting and suffering in exile, and the hemorrhaging woman’s waiting in pain, were the result of sin in the world. When our first parents ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and opened creation to sin and its influence, the world became fundamentally distorted, and all manner of evils befell God’s creatures–war, sickness, famine, and pain in their myriad forms afflicted them.  And this sin, now in the world, was passed down through all their descendants so that Jeremiah and the woman felt its effects. And sin, being a fundamental disordering of creation, at its core a rebellion against God and His order, has but one consequence–death. Thus Jeremiah saw Israel and Judah fall to the effects of sin; unrighteous kings and an unrighteous people were subject to God’s righteous judgment administered by a foreign king, though as Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:33, it grieved God to do this, for these were His beloved people.  Likewise, the woman with the hemorrhage felt the effects of sin, that sin of Adam which poisons and works in all his children, in her inability to find healing.

Sin continues to afflict us in these ways.  It affects us in body and soul, harming our bodies so that we are subject to injuries and cancers and immune system disorders, or so that we are born with limbs that don’t work correctly or with damaged senses–for example, I was born without a working sense of smell.  It affects our souls by inclining us toward activities which are contrary to God’s will and tempts us to do things that harm ourselves and other people. If you’ve ever told a little white lie, that’s sin. If you’ve ever said something that put someone else in a bad light, that’s sin.  If you’ve ever felt hatred in your heart for another person, that’s sin. If you’ve ever let your gaze linger a little longer than is appropriate on someone who isn’t your spouse, and thought about them in a way that isn’t proper, that too, is sin. We have all done these things, and these are what we think of as “benign” sins that result from Adam’s fall!  But they nonetheless have the same consequences for us that those seemingly “worse” sins–murder, theft, philandering, etc.–do. And so we, too, live with seemingly no escape from the effects of sin. We, too, witness the violence and injustice that stalk the world. We, too, will see our bodies fail and will ultimately die. If this is the consequence of the failure of our first parents, what hope is there for us?  What point is there in enduring? What are we waiting for? Why not, like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, tired with waiting for something, resolve to end it all, since there is no end to the suffering of the world in sight?

There is a reason why, in spite of the pain of watching his homeland be wiped from the map and his people slain and scattered, Jeremiah waited and endured.  We heard it this morning in Lamentations 3. Jeremiah says:

“Jeremia op de puinhopen van Jeruzalem” (1844), by Horace Vermet (1789-1863), Amsterdam Museum.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.  (Lamentations 3:22-26)

“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.”  In spite of the fact that all of mankind deserves, on account of their sinfulness, the severest of punishments, indeed, total destruction, not unlike what befell the kingdoms of Israel and Judah–a punishment, bear in mind, that God does not want for us in His heart–, Jeremiah knew that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” and that He has promised His salvation to all who trust in Him.  There is still hope, even though the sin-filled world hurls its accusations and its attacks upon those who trust in the Lord’s promise. Suffering is not God’s will for those who trust Him; He will have compassion for those who trust in Him, for He loves them (and indeed, all people). For the Lord is faithful to His people, even when they are not always faithful to Him. Therefore, Jeremiah says, in his soul, “The Lord is my portion…therefore I will hope in Him.”

And perhaps this is what was running through the mind of the woman with the hemorrhage as she struggled with the pain and the numerous doctor’s visits and surgeries.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…the Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him…for the Lord will not cast off forever.” And then she saw Jesus, about whom she had heard, and she believed that He would be able to heal her, if only perhaps, from her merely touching him.  When she did, and when He spoke to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” she received a glimpse, a foretaste, of the promised salvation that Jeremiah knew. She saw the healing power of God, His power over sin and death, demonstrated in His Son. She herself knew it personally–the righting of the wrong of sin had begun, and she had been made a recipient of the Lord’s grace.  The promise Jeremiah trusted in and hoped for, she had seen realized when Christ began the work of taking back His creation from the hold of Satan and Death. Jairus, his wife, and daughter saw this promise realized, too, when Jesus raised their daughter from the dead. And so have we.

We, too, have seen the realized promise of the Lord’s salvation because Christ died and rose for us, to defeat the power of sin, death, and hell over us.  While the world might still accuse us, while we might put our mouths in the dust in sorrow or be struck on our cheeks by a world that wishes to do us harm, sinners that we are, these powers, sin death, and the Devil, have no power over us because Christ has bought us, and we have received the promise of His Salvation.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again!  And we know that we have received the benefits of this promise because we have been washed clean of the ancestral stain of our first parents by His blood in the waters of baptism, and we continue to receive Him in His body and blood here at the altar, where we receive afresh His guarantee, where we receive His mercies which never end.

Therefore, when the world bears down on you, when the waiting seems endless and you feel unable to endure the slings and arrows (to borrow a phrase) that the world and the Devil hurl your way, take heart.  The Lord has not forgotten you, His steadfast love for you never ceases.  It is so deep and boundless that His only Son died for you so that you might be able to be reunited with Him forever.  Trust Him! Wait for Him, for His salvation–because you have already received it!

And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Martin Luther’s Sacristy Prayer

“Lord God, You have appointed me as a Bishop and Pastor in Your Church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago. Therefore, I call upon You: I wish to devote my mouth and my heart to you; I shall teach the people. I myself will learn and ponder diligently upon You Word. Use me as Your instrument — but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all.”

Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1551 (Bamberg) Printed at Wittenberg by Georg Formschneyder