Saturday, November 13, 2010

The End?

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

As we get to the end of the church year, the Bible texts call us to reflect on the end of Jesus’ life, and on the End Times.
Some denominations and groups pay a lot of attention to the End Times. When life is scary or very challenging, looking toward the End Times is seen as a way to escape the hardships of life. Often, those who focus on the End Times put a limit on the number of those who will make it into the next world, often using the number 144,000 from Revelation. The Left Behind novels propose the idea that the good people will be taken from the earth, and only the unbelievers will remain.
In contrast, Lutheran theology stresses the goodness of all creation, and the idea that God works through us humans to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection redeemed not just believers, but all of creation, all people. No one will be left behind in Lutheran theology. Lutheran focus on the End Times is very Pauline: until the end happens, there is ministry to be done, so let’s get busy. There is even a legend about Martin Luther in which he states, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I’d plant a tree today.”
… In our text today, Jesus warns the disciples to not focus much on what the  End Time means or when it will happen. He says, “There will come a time when the beautiful temple you see here will be destroyed, not a stone left standing on stone. There will be many who try to lead you astray, away from me and my words; avoid them. Scary events will happen: wars, natural disasters, famines, disease, persecutions, betrayal, hatred, death. Your faith will be tested, and you will be asked to prove or deny your belief. When you are asked to testify, I myself will put words in your mouths to defeat your enemy.” 
This indicates to scholars that Luke was written after 70CE, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish revolt, and there were persecutions of Christians in many places in the Roman Empire. The destruction of the temple must have seemed like the end of the world for the Jews and Jewish Christians of the time. Never again would there be animal sacrifices. From then on, religious practices were decentralized, and carried out in local synagogues. Prayer became the sacrifice offered in place of animals. 
20 years earlier, in 50 or 51CE, the church in Thessalonica was too focused on the End Times. Based on Jesus’ statements that he would return, many believers were convinced it would be very soon. In Thessalonica, some folks even stopped working, so they could be ready whenever that day came. This meant they were dependant on others, and Paul objected to this. Even he, who as their pastor had a right to depend on the church to feed and house him, did not do so. He worked a secular job, probably tent-making, while he was with them. To make sure they understood Paul makes it plain: “If you don’t work, you don’t get to eat. Yes, the world as we know it may end tomorrow. In the meantime, do not grow weary in doing what is right.”
Throughout history, it has often seemed like the world was about to end; or, conditions have been so bad, the end of the world has had great appeal.
In 721BCE, the Assyrians conquered Israel, and dispersed the people, who would never be gathered together again. In 587BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, and hauled the people off to exile for over 40 years. It surely seemed to them like the world was coming to an end. Psalm 137 says, “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?”
From the middle of the first century until 321CE, when Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion, there were persecutions. It seemed to them that the end might be near. In the 1300s, the Plague killed nearly half of the population in Europe: half the farmers, half the laborers, half the doctors, half the priests, half the soldiers. With few available to plant and harvest crops, people starved. Without leaders to govern, soldiers to protect, and landowners to give orders, chaos ensued. It seemed to the people of that time that the end was near.
In each century, there have been severe natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in China and Haiti, tsunamis like the one in Indonesia, hurricanes like Andrew, Katrina, and Rita. For the people who lived in those places and struggled to survive there, whose family members died there, it sure seemed like the world was coming to an end.
… And yet, people still pass on the faith. In Communist Eastern Europe large numbers of adults chose to leave the church and deny their faith, but many remained faithful despite the persecutions. Churches continued to run nursing homes and hospitals. Members found ways to gather despite restrictions, disguising Bible study as choir rehearsals. Guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer vigils at St Thomas Church in Leipzig were instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communism could not defeat the faith of committed believers.
In Haiti, where surely for at least a few moments, the people must have thought the world was ending, the Lutheran church is a model for how relief and recovery efforts can be done. There are no disorderly and unequal food distributions in the areas where the Lutheran churches are; they are well organized and safe. The ELCA and the Florida Bahamas Synod have short and long range plans for the reconstruction of buildings and lives in Haiti. They are not worried about the End times; they are concerned with ministry today.
Whether the End Times are near, or are far off in the future, Lutherans turn their focus to ministry in the mean time. Today, we have two prime examples of ongoing ministry: we donate financial offerings for Women of the ELCA for their ministries, and we bless stacks and stacks of shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. These shoeboxes represent countless hours of work in gathering and assembling, labeling and shipping. And tomorrow, we begin on next year’s shoeboxes. There are cartons full of quilts in the Hall, and more in various stages of completion. Quilting is a ministry that sends our love and concern to needy people around the world.
Yesterday, a few folks distributed door hangers at a few area houses, to share the news of Hope and Angel Food Ministries to our neighbors. Monthly, folks gather in the Hall to distribute boxes of low-cost food.
When I asked, you as a congregation donated over $1500 to the Pastor’s Discretionary fund, to help a local family in need. Each year, turkeys are purchased for a mission in Ocala, and each month, non-perishable food is given to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Food Pantry. As a congregation, we care a lot about each other, and we care about those in need. We are not worried, day by day, about when the End will come. We are focused, as we are called to be, on taking care of those in need today.
… We do not know what will happen tomorrow. There may be natural disasters, or human illness, or financial chaos, or a terrorist attack. The disaster may only affect one family, or it may reach all of us. Our calling is not to despair, not to panic, but to trust that the same Jesus who promised the disciples to be with them always will be with us too. We are called to trust in Jesus, and to endure, no matter what happens. We are to trust that the future is in God’s hands, and that every hair on our heads is known and counted by God. (I know that for some of us, there are fewer hairs than there used to be, but that doesn’t matter to God.)
Please pray with me: Eternal God, you have held the past and the present in your hands. We seek your assurance that the future is in your hands as well. Give us peace in our hearts, and the faith to trust in you, no matter what. Amen