Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (November 23, 2008)
“The End” (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)

Here we are once again at the end of another church year. Advent begins next Sunday. At the beginning of the church year, we start looking forward to the day when we will celebrate the beginning of the earthly life of Christ. But today, we are at the end. These last few weeks, we have been talking about the end of all things, the final judgment, the last day, the return of Christ in glory, and the new heaven and the new earth that God has promised.

But the end is not really the end, is it? It’s like those old movies where, when the story is over, the words “The End” appear on the screen. George Bailey discovers his life is truly wonderful after all. “The End.” But it’s really not the end. Life goes on. Dorothy is happy to be back home after her dream trip to Oz. “The End.” But it’s really not the end. Life goes on.

The end of all things of which the Bible teaches us is not really the end, either. Life will go on. It will be more wonderful than we can ever imagine. And it will not be a dream. It will be more real than we can ever imagine.

Things Yet to Do

Dreams: Then why do you and I have so many hopes and dreams for this earthly life? There are so many things we want to do and see before we die. And there are books and websites to help you out in case you run out of ideas. 1000 things to do before you die. 1000 places to see before you die. Write your own “Bucket List,” an inventory of the things you want to do before you “kick the bucket.”

We had a conversation like this in confirmation class not long ago. We talked about the importance of being ready for Jesus to return. I was struck by the honesty of one of the students (I got permission to mention this, by the way). This particular student admitted that he wasn’t ready for Jesus to return. There were a lot of things still to look forward to in this life. The rest of the class agreed.

We talked about this for a while. Is it wrong to feel this way? I mean, put yourself in their shoes. What were you looking forward to when you were their age? Getting a driver’s license. Going to college. Your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Your first high school dance. Your first car. Your first kiss. Those are all great things. (I didn’t tell them that they need to prepare for getting their hearts broken, too, but that’s another story.)

There is nothing wrong with looking forward to things like that. This world can be a rough place. It’s fallen. It’s broken. It’s sinful. But in spite of that, it is amazing to me that it can still be so enjoyable. God still graciously gives us good things, even though we don’t deserve it. The beauty of a sunset. The splendor of a mountain. The satisfaction of a glass of fine wine. The dedication of a spouse. The exuberance of children and grandchildren. God gives daily bread also to all the wicked.

Denial: What would be wrong is to be so attached to the things of this world that you would rather Jesus not return at all. This would be a denial of all the extravagant things that Jesus has in store for you in eternity. And this is not just limited to people younger than you, who have so much to look forward to in this life. You who are in your twilight years may feel you have had a full life and are ready for “the end,” especially since your body just doesn’t work the way it used to. Resurrection sounds pretty good to you right now. But others are not ready. They look back on their life and carry burdens of guilt over something they did, some harsh word not taken back, some conflict that is yet unresolved with a family member.

Delay: And so, instead of hearing Jesus’ words, “Surely I am coming soon” and praying along with St. John, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus,” (Rev. 22:20) you pray that Jesus would delay the end. You pray for extra time to prepare, get ready, reconcile, repent.

Die: But the end could come at any moment. Jesus could return. You could die in a moment’s notice. We should instead be praying along with the Psalmist, “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am. Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath.” (Psalm 39:4-5)

All of us stand under a great death sentence. Suffering and death is our common lot because of the disobedience of Adam, who ate the forbidden fruit and brought sin and death into the world. Adam is the head of the whole human race. And because he is the head, the curse of death fell upon all of us. We are all sinners. We all deserve death.

Things Yet to Come

Resurrection: But death is not the end. Resurrection awaits us. And the guarantee of our resurrection is the resurrection of Christ.

If Christ is dead, then our faith is in vain, St. Paul reminds us just before our text. We would be quite pathetic, as a matter of fact, believing in a lying fool who claimed he would rise from the dead but whose bones are still lying somewhere in the dust on this planet.

But Paul bursts forth into praise when he says, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection from the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Christ has indeed been raised. Our faith is not in vain. We trust in a living Savior who could not be held captive by death and the grave. We trust in a forgiving Savior who paid the price for our sins with his own shed blood.

Thanksgiving Day comes later this week. With Thanksgiving comes a lot of talk about harvest. Now, we’re not farmers, but we will still give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. You don’t need to be a farmer to understand how this all works. It’s pretty simple. The firstfruits are the first part of the crops that are gathered in. The firstfruits are the guarantee that there will be more to come. In the book of Leviticus, the Israelites were instructed by God to wave a sheaf of firstfruits before the Lord. In this way, they showed that the whole harvest belonged to the Lord. (Lev. 23:9-15)

Likewise, Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Because Jesus rose from the dead, that’s a promise that all who die baptized into Christ and trusting in him will also be raised to life again. Paul says in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? ... For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:3, 5) Christ, the firstfruits, was waved before the Lord on Easter Sunday. The rest of the harvest will be gathered in on the Last Day.

Wrapping Up: Resurrection awaits us when Jesus returns, along with the wrapping up of world history. Here’s how St. Paul puts it in our text: “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

The center of all human history is the cross of Christ. But even after the cross, life seemed to go on as it had since the beginning. Yes, the Apostles saw the risen Jesus. Yes, Christ’s followers went out and courageously preached that Christ had risen from the dead. But they didn’t live what most American Christians would call the “victorious life.” They were beaten, jailed, flogged, beheaded, torn apart by the mouths of hungry lions, burned at the stake. They were strangers and pilgrims among their own people. You’d think they would be tempted to think that God had forsaken them. And they also continued to deal with their own sin and temptation and disease just like you and me, today.

But they knew that Christ indeed conquered sin, death, and the devil for them, as he has for you and me. Jesus ascended into heaven to rule and reign with all power and authority until he returns. But we don’t get to see this with our eyes. It’s an article of faith which we confess. But there will come a day when the victory that Christ achieved for us at the cross and empty tomb will be publicly manifested. On that day all of history will find its ultimate fulfillment. All evil spiritual and earthly forces that have been arrayed against Christ’s church will be destroyed. Death will once and for all be done away with. And Jesus, in loving submission, will deliver the kingdom over to his Father, like the son of a king who goes off to battle and now, as a victorious knight and prince, returns to the castle to declare his victory to the king and hand over the spoils of war.

Reign of Christ: The battle is over. It was already won at the cross. Christ reigns until he puts all enemies under his feet on that great and final day. In the meantime, there is no need to fear anything that comes our way ... temptation, opposition, persecution, recession, depression, whatever the case may be. Everything is under Christ’s control.

And when the end does finally come, it will only be the beginning. The beginning of eternity. The beginning of life as God intended it to be in the first place.


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