In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It seems fitting to me that the end of the Church Year, when we are focused on the Last Things, particularly the end of this creation at the coming of Jesus to judge the living and the dead—it seems fitting to me that the end of the Church Year should come at this point in the calendar year. Because we look around at the creation, at the earth, and we see leaves changing color and falling from the trees; trees becoming more and more bare; the days continuing to get shorter; the darkness growing; and the temperatures getting colder. That seems a pretty good metaphor, a pretty good image for the way things are going in this world. And it’s interesting, at least to me, that what we find most beautiful about this time of year—the colors of the leaves—is actually a sign of death and decay. But it does seem that the world is getting darker; it does seem that peoples’ hearts are growing colder; it does seem that the time is getting shorter. St. Paul said it would happen. And as we look around at what we can see of the world, that things seem to be getting worse and worse and worse—and we should be free of the illusion that things are getting better and better, that we are progressing toward some utopian, idealistic future—even as we see the world as it is, Jesus reminds us that the end is not yet. We do not know how much time is left. Our redemption is closer now than when we first believed, but it is not yet and we don’t know how long. Jesus tells His disciples that even during their own lifetimes, they would see these sorts of things: wars and rumors of war; nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom; earthquakes and famines; Christians hated and persecuted, betrayed even by members of their own families, put to death simply because they bear the Name of Christ.
The disciples point out the beautiful stones of the Temple, but Jesus says that their beauty is actually a sign of death and decay. Those very stones would be torn one from another; there would be, as Daniel prophesied, a time of distress for Israel that had not been seen since the beginning of the nation, probably all the way back to the Exodus. When the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem, those who remained in the city saw terrible atrocities in the city, until the city and the temple were destroyed. This destruction became for both Daniel and Jesus a miniature vision of the end of the world. But the end is not yet. And so it is for us. All of the things we see around us are signs of the end, the beginning of birth pains. And so we come here to this place with our many and various concerns. We fear and worry, and we do not get rid of it when we come in the doors of a church. We carry with us concerns for our health, concerns for our families, concerns for our congregation; we carry fear about our country or about the world. We see the terrorism that seems to spread and multiply, and we hear the many voices telling us what it all means for now and for the future. We bring all of that here this morning, and it is all collected into a prayer that summarizes our continual concern and brings to it the promise of the Lord.
In our Collect today we prayed, “Lord God, in your merciful goodness, release us from the bonds of our sins, which by reason of our weakness we have brought upon ourselves, so that we may stand firm until the day of Jesus Christ.” Release and free us from our bondage to sin, so that we may stand firm until the last day. This is always the prayer of the Church when she looks around her at the world full of sin and death. When she sees the days growing colder and darker, she prays for repentance and forgiveness, so that she may stand firm in the midst of the world as it is. The Church has seen every kind of persecution and violence; she has seen all the wars and rumors of war; she has seen earthquakes and famines. Still she stands firm because she knows where her hope is: not in this world at all, but in the Lord of this world. She has seen it all, and she will see whatever the future holds, but she prays to stand firm. As the Lord says: whatever happens to you—whether you are persecuted, or killed by those who think they offer a sacrifice to God, or whether you die in old age, in relative comfort—whatever happens, the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
So for as long a time as we are given, in individual lives or in the world itself, we will not be moved from Christ even if we die. Because He Himself could not be moved. He was not moved by the temptation of Satan; He was not moved by accusation, or betrayal, or suffering, or death itself. He stood firm to the end, and now He is risen from the dead, never to die again. In His own body, He began a new, sinless, deathless creation. Because of that, there is infinite forgiveness, and wherever Christ’s people gather around Him to receive that forgiveness, He has promised to be. He will bring His promises to their conclusion and fulfillment. We hold fast to this confession of our hope without wavering, not because we’re so good at holding fast, but because we know the one whom we have believed, and that He is faithful. In the light of that confession, we stir up one another to continued love and good works for our neighbors, and we must not neglect to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing. All the more, as the days get shorter and colder, and the time until the Day grows shorter, we cannot let our eyes be drawn to the chaos, sin, and death that surround us, as if those things could tell us anything about the shortness of the days. We do not stand firm and endure to the end because we see the fleeting beauty of this creation, but because our Lord has made a promise. He speaks again and again, “I forgive you all your sins. I release you from the bonds of your sin.” He feeds us with food for endurance and standing firm: His own Body and Blood. How can He who stood firm against sin, death, and the devil, whose Body and Blood we eat and drink, fail to keep us? He who promised is faithful. And the end of this creation, whether we see it or die first, will be only the beginning.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/14/15