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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 11/17/2013

Texts like today’s gospel used to scare me; as it says on the cover of your bulletin, “The tone of today’s texts is ominous.”  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”  When I was a kid all that stuff was happening which could only make me think, the end is near, and I wasn’t ready for it. 

The years pass though and at some point you realize that all that stuff is happening pretty much all the time, some times being worse than others, but it seems like such things are always going on, the typhoon in the Philippines being the most recent dreadful portent.  But, despite it all, life goes on and I don’t think too many of us spend too much time thinking about these things being signs of the end and even if we do, even if we might think it’s the beginning of the end, we still think it’s down the road, it’s not going to happen any time soon.  Still, when I was twelve, coming across a text like this in the Bible did kind of scare me.

What’s funny though is when you look at the text more closely it says when all these things happen “do not be terrified; for these things must take place.”  What’s also funny is that while all the signs and portents listed may be terrifying in and of themselves, the coming of the Son of Man to which they are said to point, is not portrayed as terrifying, at least not in this text.  If you were to go a few verses further than today’s reading takes you, in verse 28 you get “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  That doesn’t sound bad; redemption is a good thing.  A couple of verses after that it’s “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Thy kingdom come.”  What this says then, is that all these things are signs of that happening; it’s what we’ve been praying for.

Before I go on though, I should say that this is not the only text concerning the coming of the Son of Man, or the Day of the Lord, Judgment day, however it is that we think of the end times.  Some of the texts that address this in both the Old Testament and the New are more scary sounding, and even with the ones that are more hopeful, like today’s (if we include the next verses), the events leading up to the end are not very inviting what with the natural disasters along with persecutions, being hated, being betrayed, being put to death and so forth.  

It is an issue that requires some interpretation and the biblical witness does vary so it’s almost like you can take your pick on how you understand the end times, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.  It does seem though, that interpretation has leaned toward the end being a frightening time, one that we should approach with fear and loathing, the idea being that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God who seemingly can’t wait to destroy creation and much of humanity along with it.

In light of all that, the verse that got my attention in this gospel lesson is verse 13: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”  It is true that all the scary sounding things in apocalyptic texts like today’s do happen on a pretty regular basis; earthquakes, wars, famines and so forth.  These days it seems like there are more than usual but I’m never really sure if there are more or if we just hear more about them.  Either way, the question that then comes up is what do we say in the face of these things?  They do tend to bring up the God questions and that’s why “This will give you an opportunity to testify” got my attention.  To and about what do we testify though, with these events that frighten us pretty much being a constant part of our existence?

Like I said, historically much of the testimony seems to have been about these things as signs of God’s wrath, wrath directed at one group or another, wrath that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of.  Within the Bible itself this was how bad things were often interpreted; someone must have done something so there was the frequent call to return to the Lord which is not a bad thing because such calls to repentance are certainly needed in whatever time period you’re talking about. 

I think though, that in our time this opportunity to testify gives us a chance to say something different, something that moves us away from what can pretty much amount to scare tactics.  A certain degree of fear is not a bad thing either, but in a world that seems to be full of fear, I don’t think creating more fear in church is the best use of this opportunity to testify.  Fear is not the primary message of the Bible.  Again, I’m not saying that there aren’t scary passages in the Bible; there are, but still, that’s not the primary message. 

It’s also not to say that there won’t be a judgment; there is plenty in the Bible that indicates that there will be.  But the idea that the God who will judge is a frightening God intent on eternally punishing huge portions of humanity just doesn’t fit with how God is portrayed throughout most of the Bible.  It especially doesn’t fit with how God is portrayed in the person of Jesus, yet still there are those who want of run with that image of a rather sadistic God.

So there is an opportunity to testify and today’s first lesson from Isaiah is a good place to start that process.  What I think you get in this lesson is what you might call the blueprint of God’s plan.  You hear a lot about God’s plan, often when bad things happen that we don’t understand.  “It’s part of God’s plan,” someone will say.  When that is said, what I think it is, is a way of saying that despite it all, God is still in control even though it’s hard to see it at the moment.  I agree with that.  What I disagree with is that everything that happens is part of God’s plan because I think there are lots of things that happen that are not part of God’s plan, at least not part of the plan of any God I want anything to do with.

When you talk about God’s plan I don’t think you can talk with much confidence about the details; all you can talk about is the blueprint and that’s what Isaiah’s vision in this text gives us.  It’s the vision of a new world that from our perspective sounds too good to be true, but it is true because it is God’s plan and it calls for rejoicing.  Isaiah envisions no weeping, no cry of distress; no more infants or children who live but a few days or months or years; one who dies at a hundred will be considered a youth!  People will have houses to live in and they’ll live in peace; the wolf and the lamb will feed together.  In other words, the world will be transformed, and it will be transformed into something better!

From our perspective, it’s hard to imagine, but that’s the plan!  Be glad and rejoice forever!   The former things will not be remembered or come to mind.  We have an opportunity to testify and amid and against all the fear that’s out there, this is our testimony, this is what the world needs to know.  Along with Isaiah, those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus dare to imagine this vision not as an impossibility but as God’s blueprint for the world.  The details can be harder to make sense of, but that’s the blueprint.

One of the things that I’ve talked about at council meetings and I think in sermons is that a major challenge facing the church these days is breaking the stereotypes of what people think Christianity is about.  It actually came up again in Pastor Katherine’s Lay School presentation last Tuesday.  Because of how the church is portrayed by the media there is the perception that along with being out of step with the wider culture (which in some cases might actually be a good thing) the church is also largely about fear and being against things.  I hear that and you hear that and we say “But that’s not who we are.”  We and many other Christians stand for something else, something that is much closer to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. 

We have an opportunity to testify to that difference, and we must not grow weary, we must not get discouraged in making that testimony.  As today’s last verse from Thessalonians says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Stereotypes take a long time to develop and they take a long time to change.

We’ve got the blueprint though, the blueprint of God’s plan.  We also have the opportunity to testify.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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