Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 8, 2009)

Wordle: Untitled

“The End” (1 Kings 17:8-16; Heb. 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Burt Reynolds starred in a movie back in 1978 called “The End.” Reynolds plays a man who finds out that he doesn't have long to live. After a failed attempt at committing suicide, he ends up in a psychiatric hospital, where he enlists the help of a fellow patient (played by Dom Deluise) to end his life. As the movie progresses, each attempt gets bungled one way or another.

When I lived near Los Angeles as a young person, my family used to quote one part of the dialogue from the movie. Reynolds is trying to explain to his teenage daughter Julie (played by Kristy McNichol) that he's going to “go away for a while.” He hasn't told her yet that he's dying. Thinking her father is going on a business trip, Julie declares, “I wish I could go.” Reynolds gets a pained look on his face and turns away from his daughter. She asks, “Dad, where are you going?”

“Bakersfield,” he replies.

“Well, you sound funny,” Julie says, “Like you're going someplace awful.”

Reynolds looks at her and says, “You ever been to Bakersfield?”

At the time, I had a number of relatives who lived in Bakersfield, so those lines got a lot of mileage in our family.

There's going to come a day when it is “the end” for each one of us. The end of our earthly life will come when we die. The end of all things, the end of history, the end of this sinful existence, will come when Jesus returns. In November, we draw near to the end of the Church Year. This is the time when we focus on the end of time and the final triumphant return of Jesus. So why, then, do our readings today tell us about two widows … one whose supply of flour and oil was running low, and the other who put all she had to live on in the offering plate? Why were the accounts of these two widows chosen to be read at this time of year in our lectionary?

Maybe they were chosen because when our supplies run low, we think that OUR “end” might be just around the corner. Perhaps we're out of a job. Maybe our health has taken a turn for the worse. Our reserves are quickly becoming depleted. The cupboards are looking sparse. Our emotions are frayed. Nevertheless, in the face of our lack, God has promised to supply our every need.

A drought had struck the land of Israel. The prophet Elijah was instructed to go visit a widow in the Sidonian town of Zarephath. The Lord told Elijah that the woman would feed him. This came as quite a surprise to the woman, since the drought had affected her to the point that there was only a handful of flour and a little bit of oil left in her house. She was gathering sticks to make a fire and bake one more cake for herself and her son … and then die. Yet Elijah gave her a promise from the Lord: “The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.” And that's exactly what happened.

Then there was the widow whom Jesus noticed in the temple court. She dropped her last two coins in the temple treasury box. Jesus tells us that it was “all she had to live on.” Most people give an offering only when they have more than enough to give, and usually when all their other obligations have been met. But Jesus commends this woman for giving out of her poverty. It was more important to her to give to the Lord than even to eat. Although she could have expected her end to arrive soon, yet she trusted that somehow God would take care of her.

You and I can trust the Lord to take care of our needs, too. The psalmist declared, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16) We pray in the Lord's Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Small Catechism tells us that “daily bread” is “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body.” And St. Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 6:8 that “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

Someday our “end” will come. We heard earlier in today's Epistle reading, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Heb. 9:27) We trust God to take care of us in this life until that “end.”

But that’s really not “the end.” The author of Hebrews says that Christ is “the end.” “...he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice once for all.” (Heb 9:26) All of history finds its fulfillment in Christ, through whose sacrifice our sins have been put away.

Have we doubted God’s provision? Jesus died for our sin of doubt.

Have we been like the teachers of the law in today's Gospel reading? Loving to be the center of attention at the expense of others? Thinking we are better than the rest of the common rabble? Being so greedy that it not only affects our offerings, but that it also affects the way we share with others, such as poor, needy widows like the one in Zarephath or the one in Jerusalem? Showing off how “spiritual” we are? Jesus also died for our sins of greed and pride and arrogance.

All our sins are forgiven through Christ's sacrifice on the cross. “Once for all.” For all people. For all sins. And God’s forgiving love motivates us to live a God-pleasing life until Jesus comes again a second time, as he promised. Then comes “the end” … the end of this current age and the beginning of eternity … of which we have a share in right now. Remember, in Christ, you HAVE eternal life as a present possession. In John 17, Jesus prayed to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3) And in chapter 3 of his Gospel, St. John declares, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” (John 3:36) Not “will have.” “Has.”

And so, when Jesus returns at the end of time, we do not need to fear that “end.” “Christ … will appear a second time, not to deal with sin,” Hebrews 9 says. That already happened at the cross. Christ “will appear a second time … to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

All this sort of reminds me how you always used to see the words “The End” when a movie was over. The story has been brought to a conclusion. But it wasn't really “the end.” The gunslinger may be riding off into the sunset as the words “The End” are splashed across the screen … the sweeping musical number crescendos … the credits begin to roll. But tomorrow the sun will rise again, another day starts, and another story in the life of that rugged hero will continue in another town, another prairie, with other outlaws to hunt down. “The End” is not really the end.

Likewise, our “end” is not really “the end.” When we die, we will be with the Lord, as Jesus promised the thief who was crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And then, another day will dawn for us as we wake up from the sleep of death. Our bodies will rise again and our story will continue in the new heaven and the new earth, where we will be in God’s unveiled presence and serve Him in eternal joy and bliss forever.

What exactly will that be like? What adventures await us as we beyond the horizon of this life? I'll use the words of the 12th Century hymn writer, Bernard of Cluny, in the hymn “Jerusalem the Golden”: “We know not, oh, we know not / What joys await us there: / The radiancy of glory, / The bliss beyond compare.” (LSB 672, st. 1))

You can trust that God will take care of you until “the end.” He will provide for all your needs, both physical and spiritual. “All depends on our possessing / God's abundant grace and blessing / Though all earthly wealth depart. / They who trust with faith unshaken / By their God are not forsaken / And will keep a dauntless heart … If my days on earth he lengthen, / God my weary soul will strengthen; / All my trust in Him I place. / Earthly wealth is not abiding, / Like a stream away is gliding; / Safe I anchor in His grace.” (LSB 732, sts. 1, 6)

The same God who gave the widow of Zarephath an unlimited supply of flour and oil can certainly give you an unlimited supply of grace, mercy, and forgiveness until Jesus returns.

Now this is “the end” of my sermon.


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