Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I Would Like to Be a Good Pray-er


I’ve read the Longer Preface to the Large Catechism many times, but never in quite the same way I did today.  I had read Luther’s admonition to those who neglect the catechism because they imagine they are giving their mind to “higher” matters or who are just too lazy to put forth the time and effort to learn and teach such things.  I have thought, “You give it to those guys, Dr. Luther.”  Like the Pharisee, I’ve proudly said to myself, “I’m glad I’m not like them.  I teach the catechism.  I work hard.  I put in a lot of hours in preparation.”
But then I noticed something else Luther writes:
9Therefore, for God’s sake I beg such lazy bellies or arrogant saints to be persuaded and believe that they are truly, truly not so learned or such great doctors as they imagine!  They should never assume that they have finished learning the parts of the catechism or know it well enough in all points, even though they think that they know it ever so well.  For even if they know and understand the catechism perfectly (which, however, is impossible in this life), there are still many benefits and fruits to be gained, if it is daily read and practiced in thought and speech.  For example, the Holy Spirit is present in such reading, repetition, and meditation. He bestows ever new and more light and devoutness. In this way the catechism is daily loved and appreciated better, as Christ promises in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them.”
10 Besides, catechism study is a most effective help against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts. It helps to be occupied with God’s Word, to speak it, and meditate on it, just as the first Psalm declares people blessed who meditate on God’s Law day and night (Psalm 1:2). Certainly you will not release a stronger incense or other repellant against the devil than to be engaged by God’s commandments and words, and speak, sing, or think them [Colossians 3:16]. For this is indeed the true “holy water” and “holy sign” from which the devil runs and by which he may be driven away [James 4:7].[1]
Those two paragraphs convicted me!  That is where I have failed most often in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  I have failed to pray as I ought.  I have failed to draw from the one source of power that overcomes the devil’s schemes and instead relied upon my own limited skills, talents, and hard work for success.  I repent and ask the Lord’s forgiveness.  I ask the forgiveness of those I have failed to serve as I ought.  As the Twelve asked Jesus, I pray that He would teach me to pray.  More than anything else I would like be good at praying.  I want to be a good pray-er. 
Lord, remember me in Your kingdom and teach me to pray!    

[1] Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. Edited by Paul Timothy McCain. St. Louis, MO : Concordia Publishing House, 2005, S. 353

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Foolish Oil Shortage

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins by William Blake

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Who would’ve thought that the day would come when $3.29 would seem like such a good deal for a gallon of gasoline?  But it wasn’t that long ago that it cost me over $20 more to fill the gas tank on our van than it does today.  While political parties point at each other, and many say greedy oil companies are the culprit, the fact is that the high price of gasoline is caused by a number of foolish choices, shortsightedness, and the simple law of supply and demand.
For several years American refiners have been operating at above 100% capacity (however you can do that).  While consumption of oil products has continued to rise steadily, no new oil refineries have been built for three decades.  In addition, regulators have restricted development of pipelines that would carry crude oil from Canada, and environmental concerns have prevented drilling at a number of promising oil fields.  This all comes on top of the fact that much of our imported oil comes from the most politically sensitive area in the world. 
But as much as the price of gasoline might affect our bank balance, we didn’t come here to discuss economics—either on a national or personal basis—did we?  We didn’t come here to hear about foolish oil shortages, did we? 
Come to think of it, maybe we did.  Or at least that’s what Jesus seems to have in mind to teach us in our text for today, Matthew 25:1-13.  Here, in “The Parable of the Ten Virgins,” Jesus speaks about an even more foolish oil shortage that occurs among those who call themselves Christians—those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, and who fully expect to be with Him in the heavenly Paradise one day.  Here, Jesus proclaims the truth to His people for the purpose of warning the foolish in the congregation and comforting the wise in the Church. 
Jesus teaches His Church, depicted as ten virgins, a very important truth.  All them have heard of and know the Bridegroom.  Every virgin anticipates His arrival.  Each fully expects to be ushered into the eternal marriage feast.  All of them even become drowsy and fall asleep.  All of them, when they are aroused by the midnight cry, go out with their lamp in hand to meet the Bridegroom.
This corresponds to the complete congregation here at Zion/Emmaus—those here today and those who for one reason or another are not.  Each of you has heard of the Lord God and has been brought to faith in Christ through the Gospel.  Every one of you fully anticipates the arrival of Jesus.  Each member of this congregation fully expects to be ushered into the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb. 
But take a closer look at the virgins.  Half of them are foolish and the other half are wise.  The foolish virgins have no oil with them.  They’ve got their lamps in hand, and the wicks trimmed, but they’ve neglected the oil.  Is it any wonder that Jesus uses the Greek word for moron to describe them?  The wise virgins not only have their lamps, but also flasks of oil to keep their lamps burning, enabling them to behold the gracious Bridegroom and remain ready for His coming.
So take a closer look at those Christians at Zion/Emmaus Lutheran Church.  Some of those Lutherans are foolish and the others are wise.  The foolish members have no oil with them.  They’ve been baptized and catechized, but they’ve been neglecting the oil.  The wise followers of Christ not only have the promise in hand, but also faith, which hears the absolution: “Your sins are forgiven.”  Yes, faith, which trusts such Word of God in the water and which is strengthened by Christ’s very body and blood.  Each of the ten virgins has a lamp.  The wise have made sure that there is oil for the necessary light, but the morons neglect the means whereby faith is kept alive.  And then the Bridegroom is delayed. 
Why?  The parable doesn’t tell us.  The important point is that Christ could return at any time.  Make sure to have enough oil!
So what is the oil?  The oil in the lamp is the means of grace.  The oil is the Word of forgiveness bestowed in the Absolution.  The oil is the baptismal grace that daily rejoices in the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.  The foolish say, “Hey, I was baptized in church.”  The wise, “I am baptized into Christ’s death.” 
The oil is the bread and wine of the on-going feast of victory from our God who sustains and nourishes our faith in His Supper.  The morons think that the Table of the Lord is nice but not necessary, thus cutting themselves off from this on-going feast.  Not hungering for the body of Christ, their soul waits for the Lord like a fool carrying around an empty lamp and walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  Two or three weeks of fasting from the feast becomes two or three years and then extends to two or three decades.
The wise Christians long for the Divine Service where the Lord serves the oil of gladness in Word and Sacrament.  The wise one hungers for the meal and is thankful that it is served often.  The wise one prepares for entrance into this sanctuary by recalling the triune name into which he or she was baptized—that is, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  This is the holy place where Christ announces His forgiveness for all sins of thought, word, and deed.
Here is oil of gladness, dear people.  Here, a Christian may pray, “O most merciful God who has given Your only begotten Son to die for us, have mercy upon us and for His sake grant us remission of all our sins; and by Your Holy Spirit increase in us true knowledge of You and of Your will and true obedience to Your Word, to the end that by Your grace we may come to everlasting life.”
Here, we hear the Good News: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins… He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
Such a wise man or woman may return to his or her home justified and able to fall asleep at night knowing that whenever the Lord may return, he or she is ready.  Here is the oil of gladness that sustains the soul in a land of darkness and keeps it prepared for the eternal joys ahead.
And what of those who have lamps without oil?  What of those who think that God will open the door to them only because of their Lutheran lineage or their claim of good works or the legalistic foundation of their religion, or the best intentions of their sinful heart.  The foolishness of these morons is such that they still fully expect to enter into Paradise.  So with a devilishly placed veil over their eyes, they lay down at night with self-deceptive thoughts.  They dream sweet dreams, but sleep the horrid slumber of those who have fallen asleep unprepared, their lamps bone dry of the enlightening, lifesaving oil.
Then at midnight comes the cry: “Here is the Bridegroom!  Come out to meet Him!”  All are awakened and all arise.  Each one readies her lamp and every wise virgin has the oil needed.  What a time of great joy and hope and anticipation!  What each one has lived for and prepared for is at the door of eternity.  The wise virgins will be escorted from the ongoing feast of the Church in time to the eternal feast of the Bridegroom that lasts forever in Paradise.
But what about the foolish?   The horrid reality hits them.  They realize they have been negligent.  But the day of salvation has passed and the time of God’s gracious invitation has ended.  They’ve tried to get everything in order but in their frantic activity they neglected the one thing needful.  Too late they start looking for oil.  But the foolish may not have the Gospel promise that has been applied to the faithful heart of the wise.  Neither, on that day, will the wise be able to evangelize the lost.  And so the foolish virgins rush out to find oil.  But it is too late, and when they come back they find the door shut.
These foolish virgins come, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us.”  But would those who have despised God’s preaching and His Word, as well as have not found it necessary to partake of the on-going feast here, suddenly want to be with the victorious, ascended, reigning, majestic Son of God who has the eternal feast?
They still think so, but it cannot be.  If the Ancient of Days opened the door to Paradise and stood before them, they would cower and be consumed, for they would meet Him, not according to His grace and mercy, but in full view of His perfect wrath and holy righteousness.  They will be like the naked who stand exposed before the eyes of the entire world in complete shame, guilt, and uncleanness, only they will be standing before God’s omniscient eyes.
So what will be said by the Lord God Almighty standing on one side of the door to those foolish, unprepared individuals on the other side?  The Bridegroom replies: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”  And so Jesus ends this parable concerning the kingdom of heaven: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
And so you wise ones watch.  You watch with joy because although the Bridegroom delays, He is coming.  He who shed His blood to redeem you will not forget you now.  He is coming; and because He has prepared you by His death and resurrection, you know the end of the story—yours is the wedding feast, and you will live happily ever after.  This is true, not because of your merit or your knowledge, for that is only foolishness.  This is true because the Lord has made you wise.  By His blood and merit, He has taken away your sins.  By His grace and invitation, He keeps you ready for His coming.
Truly this day He prepares you still with this Word of His that gives you eternal life and makes you wise unto salvation: You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Supplications, Prayers, Intercessions, and Thanksgivings for All People

You can listen to an audio version of this message at http://www.christsiouxfalls.org/media/sermons/2012-11-22.mp3
The text for this Day of Thanksgiving is our Epistle, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, which has already been read. 
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Prayer’s importance should not be underestimated.  The same God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved, desires our prayers on behalf of all people, particularly in the context of public worship.  The four synonymous but nuanced terms for prayer in our text indicate that the prayers we offer together run the whole gamut of conversing with God.  Supplications ask God for specific benefits or needs.  Prayers are respectful devotion.  Intercessions are earnest appeals made on behalf of others.  Thanksgivings are expressions of gratitude for mercies received.  Though especially fitting for this day, prayers of thanksgiving are always appropriate even when earthly circumstances are difficult, because we are never separated from God’s love and mercy in Christ.
Dr. John W. Kleinig tells this story illustrating the importance of such prayers.  “As a chaplain some years ago, I was involved in a discussion with a senior high school Scripture class on the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12: ‘Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’ 
“As a lead into the discussion, I posed the question, ‘What’s the very best thing that you as a Christian could ever do for another person?’  Lots of different answers were given.  You could defend, befriend, or help that person in trouble; you could even show your love by dying for him.  Yet all agreed that you would not have to be a Christian to do these things.  Then someone suggested you could share your faith by telling others about Jesus.  The class was uneasy about this answer because the person who said that was a rather heavy-handed Bible basher.
“Then a rather reserved girl came up with a different suggestion.  She reckoned that you would do something even greater if you simply prayed for that person.  When pressed to justify her claim, she maintained that by praying for people in need we give them God’s help rather than human help.  We give God’s grace and nothing but His grace.  Everything else we do is tainted by the evil in us, but not prayer.  Any help, no matter how generous, puts down those who are helped and leaves them in debt to the one who has helped them.  But not prayer!  When we pray for others, we can do nothing evil but only good for them.  We simply place them in God’s hands and then withdraw.  When we do that, they don’t even know that we have prayed for them unless we happen to tell them” (Grace Upon Grace, p. 199-200).
Wondering if Scripture backed up the girl’s hunch, Dr. Kleinig studied Matthew 7:1-12, noting the context.  Verses 1-5 warn against the condemnation of a sinning neighbor.  Verse 6 prohibits the desecration of a holy thing by giving to an unclean person.  And verses 7-11, encourages prayer, ending with the words: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”  Then, at verse 12, comes a “so,” a “therefore,” which links the Golden Rule to the words of Jesus about prayer: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
The Golden Rule wasn’t given as a general ethical principle for all people, but as wise direction for God’s children who have access to their heavenly Father through faith in Christ.  The best thing I could ever hope to receive from fellow Christians is their prayers.  And the reverse is also true: By praying for God to forgive them when they sin, I show my love for them and for God, thereby fulfilling the Law and Prophets. 
When it comes to the shortcomings of others, two approaches are common.  On the one hand, there is the legalistic way.  We can use God’s Law to judge and condemn sinners.  Jesus warns us that when this happens, we pass judgment on ourselves.  On the other hand, there is the permissive way.  We can be lenient and overlook the fault in the hope that the Gospel will change that person.  Jesus warns us that where this is done something holy is desecrated and defiled.  He therefore advocates a third way—the way of intercession.  The sins of our fellow Christians, the conflicts and tensions in a Christian community, are all opportunities and occasions for our supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. 
Let me bring this closer to home: when I fail as a pastor, I don’t need your condemnation or your indulgence.  What I need is your support, and you can give it best through your prayers.  The same is true for all Christians.  As a fellowship of justified and forgiven sinners, the Church is created and sustained by intercession.  There is, therefore, an inverse ratio between criticism and intercession in a Christian community.  Where people no longer pray for one another, troubles arise, criticism increases, compassion decreases.  Satan, therefore, stimulates criticism and condemnation of others (for the best possible moral and theological reasons, of course) in order to diminish compassion and intercession.  That’s how he is most able to sabotage the life and work of the Church.
But God, in His mercy and grace, has not left us to fend for ourselves.  He shares His grace and power with us so we can intercede on behalf of others.  The vicarious nature of intercession comes out clearly in the incident with the golden calf.  God seeks the permission of Moses to destroy the people and make a new nation out of Moses, but Moses intercedes.  Having favor with God, Moses seeks to include his people in that favor, even as he refuses to separate from his people and join God in His condemnation.  Thus Moses stands both in solidarity with God in His grace and with his people in their sin. 
Moses bases his intercession on two things.  First, he rests his case on God’s character.  In the face of God’s wrath, Moses appeals to His goodness and faithfulness, for unless God is consistently gracious and reliable, intercession is a pointless activity.  Second, he recalls the promises that God gave to the patriarchs.  In his intercession, Moses expects God to honor His promises. 
As Christians, we are even more certain of our standing with God than Moses ever was.  We are united with Christ.  Unlike Moses, we do not stand alone before God; we stand in the shoes of Jesus, our Mediator.  He has turned away God’s wrath and condemnation from us and the whole world by His sacrificial death on the cross.  We are justified before Him and have access to His grace for ourselves and others.  Like Moses, we can be bold in claiming God’s grace for them because we know Him and His promises to all His people.
Such intercession presupposes a sense of solidarity with others.  That’s why the biggest obstacle to its practice is the type of modern individualism that minds its own business because it regards each person as an isolated, autonomous unit.  The more we acknowledge our ties with others, the better we will be able to understand, appreciate, and practice intercession.
As Christians, we stand within two large international communities.  On the one hand, we are part of the human race, all descendants of Adam and Eve, sharing in the prosperity and adversity of each other.  Having a common origin, existence, and destiny, we are inextricably connected with one another on planet earth.  On the other hand, as Christians, we are members of the communion of saints.  As members of the same Body, we share in the sins and blessings and prayers of one another across all boundaries of time and space. 
As Christians, we are carried along by the prayers of others.  Long before I could pray, my parents, relatives, and fellow Christians began to pray for me.  Their prayers brought me to Christ in Baptism.  Their prayers surrounded me as my faith was nurtured and grew.  Their prayers ministered to me at confirmation, marriage, and ordination.  Their prayers support me in my faith and work as a pastor.  When I forget to pray, or am unable to pray, I rely on their intercession. 
Since I am a Christian, I can also carry others along by my intercession for them.  My prayers are therefore always made for the benefit of others.  They always receive something from my prayers no matter how feeble and inadequate my efforts may be.  When I pray for someone else, I use my faith for his benefit.  I also show love for them.  In John 15:12-17, Jesus connects the love that is ready to lay down its life for others with prayer for them.  We therefore love others and lay down our lives for them spiritually when we pray for them. 
It is remarkable how far we are called to go in showing love by praying for others.  When fellow Christians have sinned, we may pray confidently for their forgiveness since we have the promise that God will give them life.  We show our love for them by covering over their sins rather than passing judgment on them.  What’s more, we also show love to our enemies by praying for them.  It seems that God gives us our enemies just for this purpose.  He allows them to attack us so that He can use us to pray for them and secure His blessings for them. 
The critics of the Church were astonished that Christians prayed for people who were unrelated to them, foreigners, and even their enemies, rather than just for their own families, community, and the adherents of their own religion.  This was, and still is, a countercultural feature of Christian piety.  In the Divine Service, we pray together with Jesus and the whole Church on earth for the whole world. 
Jesus sacrificed His life as a ransom on behalf of every human being.  He is now at work in the Church as the one and only mediator between God the Father and all men.  Since God wants all people to be saved, Jesus intercedes for all people and prays for their salvation.  So we, too, join with Jesus in His ministry of intercession for the world, for all people. 
We should also pray specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions.”  Whether they are good or bad rulers, Christians or non-Christians, they need our prayers because they are meant to work for God in ruling His world.  They can’t do that without God’s help and the prayers of the Church.
In our supplications, we, like Jesus, identify ourselves with others and stand together with them in their need.  We are to act as if their needs are, in fact, our needs.  We plead for them, whatever their need.  This presupposes an awareness of the misery of the people around us and a sense of compassion for them.  So as we go about our daily routine, we take note of their need and/or troubles and add them in our daily and weekly prayers.  If those around us aren’t in trouble, we still stand in for them with Christ by our prayers to God the Father for their prosperity.  We act as if their lives are ours and pray for them as if their welfare is ours.  Even if they are not Christians, we may ask Him to give them His good gifts, such as health or success at work or at home.  The assumption behind this is that God puts us in touch with them so that He can use us to bless them.
We also stand in for others with Christ by our intercessions on their behalf when they have sinned.  Rather than condemn them, we act as if their sins are ours.  We ask God to have mercy on them and give them the opportunity to come to repentance.  That’s the love that covers a multitude of sins.  
When we experience evildoing in the Church and corruption of the world, it is easy for Christians to become indignant and judgmental about the whole messy business, as if evil has nothing to do with us.  All too often the discovery of evil in others reinforces our own self-righteousness.  How much better if instead of gossiping about them and their misdeeds, we, like Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, treat their sin as our own sin and plead their forgiveness.  I have decided that whenever I feel upset about the state of the world and problems in the Church, I will curb my self-righteous indignation and pray for the people involved.
We also stand in for others with Christ through our thanksgivings for the blessings that they have received from God.  If they prosper and things go well for them, we do not envy them and begrudge them their happiness.  Instead, we act as if their blessings are ours.  We use our access to God to thank Him for His loving kindness and generosity to them because they are not yet in the position to do so themselves.  This is especially fitting on a day like to day where we bring our prayers of thanksgiving to the heavenly Father on behalf of everyone in our nation!
This is an aspect of intercession that has received scant attention in recent times, but it was prominent in the Early Church.  They believed that the Church was appointed to serve, together with the angels, as a choir that voices thanks and praise to God on behalf of the whole human race.  When others prosper, we, too, can identify with them and thank God for their blessings.  In this we follow Jesus, who leads us in the praise of His heavenly Father.
As we learn to pray, we discover a rather unexpected bonus: joy.  That is the promise of Jesus in John 16:23-24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.  Until now you have asked nothing in My name.  Ask, and you will receive, so that your joy may be full.”  Here, Jesus surprises us by connecting joy with prayer.  Whatever joy His disciples may have had is incomplete until they pray to the Father in His name.  Full joy comes from praying together with Jesus and receiving the Father’s gifts through Him. 
In Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17:13, He adds a further dimension to this promise of enjoyment.  Jesus speaks His prayer out aloud for them to hear on the night before His death so that they may have His joy made complete in them.  He has given us the Father’s name and words so that we can join and pray together with Him.  There is nothing that gives Him or us greater joy than that.  Prayer in the name of Jesus is the pinnacle of His and our joy at His union and communion with the Father and with us.
Joy is the by-product of prayer in the name of Jesus.  It comes from the exercise of our faith in Him.  It comes from praying together with Jesus and speaking to the Father as those who share in His Sonship.  It comes from receiving the blessings that Jesus has won for us by His death and resurrection.  The joy of prayer is the joy of receiving grace after grace, one blessing after another, from God the Father.  That is most certainly a reason for giving thanks.  Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2012

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet!

Our text for today is our Gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-13, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Even his critics knew President Ronald Reagan as “The Great Communicator.”  I think much of that ability to communicate was due to the consistency of his message.  No matter what the forum or audience, he always spoke of the greatness of America’s heritage, the productivity of its citizens, and the potential for even greater success.  Frequently, he would close his message with these words: “America’s best days lie ahead.  You ain’t seen nothing yet!” 
Though certainly not grammatically correct, it did get his point across and it captured the imagination of millions of supporters for years afterward.  Even in the most recent election many people were looking for someone who could effectively communicate that sense of optimism and purpose.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet!”  I can almost imagine Jesus saying that to His disciples as they oohed and aahed at the splendor of the temple compound.  “Look, Teacher!  What massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” says Jesus.  “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” 
You ain’t seen nothing yet! 
It was natural for one of His disciples to remark on splendor of the buildings as Jesus left the temple for the last time.  We, too, are impressed when we view beautiful churches and monumental buildings.  We tour them on our vacations and show slides and photographs of them to our family and friends.  Historic societies raise millions of dollars to restore them and preserve them. 
The temple in Jerusalem was perhaps more spectacular than anything we have ever seen.  It was one of the wonders of the ancient world.  In fact, there was a proverb in the Jewish Talmud that “Whoever has not seen Herod’s temple has never seen anything beautiful” (Baba Bathra, 4a).  Herod the Great started rebuilding it in about 20 B.C., employing over 18,000 slaves.  Fifty years later work was still in progress and would continue for another 30 years. 
The stones mentioned by Jesus in our text were massive.  The ancient historian Josephus tells us some of them were 40 feet long by 12 feet wide by 8 feet high.  Even the smallest “bricks” were 15 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet.  Looking at this impressive structure, the disciples thought that here surely was something built to stand as long as this world would.
They were mistaken.  When those governing the temple rejected the Word of God and the authority of His Son, they wrote their own ticket of destruction.  In A.D. 70 the Roman army overran Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.  Not one stone was left on another, so we can no longer even determine the exact location on the temple mount. 
In further demonstration that He had rejected the temple, God has since permitted the Muslims to build their Dome of the Rock on that very site.  Part of the great retaining wall still stands, but that was not part of the temple itself.  Sadly, even its use today as the Wailing Wall does not turn hearts to the one and only Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Israel’s history shows that Jesus came to His own and His own did not receive Him.  May we never make the same mistake! 
In shocked silence, the disciples follow Jesus to the Mount of Olives.  There they have time to pause and ponder Jesus’ weighty words and four of them question Jesus privately: “Tell us, when will these things happen?  And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”  These four—Andrew, Peter, James, and John—had first been disciples of John the Baptist, who had spoken of the end of things as well. 
“I baptize you with water for repentance,” John had declared.  “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:11-12). 
You think John the Baptist is great?  You ain’t seen nothing yet! 
For over three years, these disciples had followed this more powerful One, Jesus Christ, whom John pointed toward.  Now He is also talking about this time of judgment and great destruction.  It’s no wonder they have a few questions.  You and I would too, if we were in the same position.  The four disciples believe the destruction of the temple will be one of the signs that usher in the end of the age, when Christ comes in judgment.  They want to know what else to look for so they were not caught off-guard.
Jesus answers accordingly.  He does not reveal the date to them, for that would have been spiritually dangerous.  But He does speak in detail of the signs and of what would happen in the meantime.  Thus He prepares them and us for the trials ahead.  You think you’ve had hard times?  You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Jesus says to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you.  Many will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.  These are the beginning of birth pains.”  You think the world’s gone crazy?  You ain’t seen nothing yet!
These words of Jesus read like a page out of our daily newspaper: cults with their messiahs, wars and threats of war, earthquakes and famines.  We have them all.  They are the evidence that sin has corrupted all things and that only the Lord’s coming can finally set things straight. 
False messiahs appeared before the destruction of Jerusalem, and there have been many since.  They are among us now.  Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons have taken millions captive by their false teaching while they claim to be Christians, while they claim, to be the actual true church. 
And even within Christian denominations there are more and more false prophets who dismiss Biblical teachings on topics such as sin, sexuality, the person of Christ, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and the pastoral office.  They spread soul-damning “new, enlightened understandings,” and their words are eagerly received by people with “itching ears.”   
If you think that this isn’t bad enough to fit the terrible descriptions of the end times in Scripture, remember that the worst kind of distress is not physical but spiritual.  The worst disaster is the loss of the Gospel, when Jesus becomes merely a model for victorious and obedient living rather than Savior and Redeemer from sin.  When God’s Word is not purely taught and the Sacraments are not correctly administered, the very means of our salvation is taken away from us.  Jesus’ words are sharp and to the point: “Watch out that no one deceives you.”  On the surface, things may appear normal or even peaceful.  But Satan’s best work is done in secret, without people realizing what he is doing or that he is the one doing it.
Jesus also cautions, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom” (Mark 13:7-8).
The last century witnessed the most destructive wars on the broadest scale in the world’s history.  And with terrorists dedicated to another god and the elimination of all who will not convert to their Islamic faith having access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, this age has the potential for something far worse in the future.  You think our world is dangerous now?  You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Jesus also says, “There will earthquakes in various places and famines.”  Nature itself will “act up” in these last days.  Creation itself will start to fall apart.  We’ve certainly seen this happening in a variety of ways.  Whether you want to blame it on “global warming,” “El Nino,” or just regular climate cycles and changing weather patterns, there have been earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and droughts on a broad scale.
But you ain’t seen nothing yet!  Jesus does not say that all these signs are indications that the end is present but they are “the beginning of birth pains.”  St. Paul explains: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22, 23). 
Now, Jesus doesn’t want us to become fatalists or doomsayers.  But He does give us a healthy dose of realism here, so that we will remember what’s really important.  We are all fallen people in a fallen world that is headed for judgment.  Still, it is not all bad news.  When Jesus says, “Such things must happen,” He indicates that God has a hand in it.  In fact, if it were not for God’s intervention in our lives, we would be among those many people whom Daniel describes as condemned to shame and everlasting contempt.  But God, in His mercy, has forgiven us for the sake of His Son.  So the appropriate attitude for us in these latter days is not fear, but one of repentance and humility before God.
Jesus does not tell His disciples these things to terrify or discourage us, but rather to prepare us for what lies ahead.  We need strengthening to be able to live out our faith in this world and bear the cross.  We need to be reminded that for God’s people, suffering comes before the glorious victory, just as it did for our Lord Jesus.  Yet, that victory is ours as surely as Jesus is now at the Father’s right hand, ready to return for His people. 
In the meantime, He has not left us here alone.  In Word and Sacraments, Jesus continues to lead us and guide us.  In Holy Baptism, God seals us with His Holy Spirit.  He gives us His holy name and makes us His children.  His Holy Spirit gives us faith, wisdom, and understanding.  As we hear and study God’s holy Word, we grow in the faith and are “prepared to given an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15). 
As we confess our sins and receive God’s holy absolution we are cleansed of our sins and renewed for service in God’s kingdom.  In Holy Communion, we receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and strengthening of our faith.  We are given a foretaste of the eternal feast that awaits us in heaven.  In these means of grace, we are equipped to take up Christ’s cross and share the Gospel with our family, friends, and neighbors, and all of the world until the end of time when Christ appears in glory.
When will that end be?  Jesus does not say specifically.  Rather, he points to our assignment in the meanwhile: “The Gospel must first be preached to all nations.”  And then He encourages us to remain faithful in the meanwhile: “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  Instead of being concerned about the exact date, let us go forward using our time and talents to witness for Him.  Let us regularly gather around His life-giving Word and Sacraments, knowing that as we do, Christ Himself will help us face and overcome the trials. 
Remember, the best days lie ahead—for eternity.  You ain’t seen nothing yet!   Of this, you can be most sure, because the One who has overcome the world for you declares to you His love and forgiveness.  That is, He lived for you, He died for you, and He rose again for you, so that you would have salvation and eternal life.  So that you would be forgiven for all of your sins.  
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...