Firm to the End II
Tic, tic, tic, the countdown to the Last Sunday of the Church Year begins. Today it's 3, next it's 2, and then it's done. Three years ago I preached this same text under the theme "Firm to the End." Today is Part II. How can the theme not be "Firm to the End?" The antiphon repeats and the Gospel ends with the solemn words, "He who stand firm to the end will be saved."
For those studying Hebrews, end is the telos word, and that right there tells you a lot. It shows up 3 times in our text, and it means much more than just the finish, kaput, over and done. We'll get to that, but first, you have to believe there is an end in the sense of over, done, finished. All created things, those of men and of God, will end. Whatever you think permanent, is but dust in the wind. Manmade buildings that scrape the sky or God-made mountains that fill it will all come tumbling down. The disciples are fixated on that sort of end. They ask Jesus, "Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?" "Fulfilled" is connected to telos. Syntele means to end together completely. And it doesn't just say "they asked Jesus." No, they kept on asking Him. They really wanted to know the when' of this type of end.
Jesus responds by listing the things people usually take for the end, the things false prophets use to gain a hearing and a following. Jesus says you will hear of wars, rumors of wars, nation against nation, earthquakes, and famines. Then Jesus says, "But the end is still to come." These things aren't it. The destruction, the pain, the tragedy that accompanies the failing of this created order is not the goal, the point, the aim of God. No, says Jesus, "These are the beginning of birth pains." Birth pains aren't the baby; birth pains aren't the end, the goal, the purpose, the aim of pregnancy. A child is.
If you want to focus on the birth pains on the way to the end, go ahead, but then be haunted by the words "he who stands firm to the end will be saved." Because if you think you can you're sorely mistaken. 1 Cor. 10 says, "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." Pride not wobbly knees, says the Proverb, is what goes before a fall. Think of it; we almost always fall when we think we won't. Peter said, "Even though all fall away from you, I will stand." Peter fell not once but 3 times only hours later.
What chance do we who are so easily deceived have of standing firm so that no one deceives us? What chance do we have of not being alarmed when we're so quickly alarmed by financial crises, flu threats, and terrorists attacks? Understand this; it wasn't a crises in my finances; swine flu didn't strike me down; terrorists didn't attack my house, my city, or even my state. Just the threat, the possibility alarmed me, quaked by heart and weakened my knees. And you think I'll stand firm to the end?
Even if I somehow escaped deception and panic, do you think I'll stand firm if betrayed by local churches for physical punishment? Do you think I'd stand firm when put on trial by the political world? Do you think I'd be able to stand firm if I was betrayed, as Jesus promises will happen to some, to death by my family? Could you? How can either of us when we can't even handle Jesus' promise that "all men will hate you because of Me?"
Surely you caught this. All the betrayal, flogging, and charges at the hands of church and state says Jesus are "on account of Me." And yes this is the bolded, emphasized, emphatic Me! And what about the turmoil, the trouble, the upheaval in the family that leads to betrayal, rebellion, and even death? That too says Jesus is "because of Me." This time it's not emphatic; it's almost anticlimactic. Jesus goes through the many people problems His followers will have in church, state, and family and concludes. "At the end of the day all men will hate you because of Me."
You're going to stand firm when all it takes to deliver you, to stop the betrayal, rebellion, hatred, and death is one sentence from the lips of St. Peter, "I know not the Man?" If you only know the history of the church, you would see how easy it was made for Christians not to stand firm. First they were asked to deny Jesus. If they wouldn't do that at least put a pinch of incense on the altar for the goddess Roma. If they couldn't do that at least pray with the pagans. If you'll just do that, you'll be let go, your property won't be confiscated; your family won't suffer; you'll live.
I can't stand firm to the end. No how, no way, but I can endure on the way to the telos, to the goal, to the fulfillment, to the point of my life. Our insert translates "stand firm." The NASB, the ESV, King James, New King James, and all the Beck Bibles translate "endures." This is the word for remaining under a load, a burden. It doesn't imply willpower but resignation. Here it's resignation to the will, ways, and even love of God.
Jesus doesn't say endure to the world's end but the end He has for us. There is no definite article, no "the" before the word "end" as there was the first time Jesus used the word. God has a telos, a goal, a point, for this whole created order and for you as individual. That goal, that end, that point isn't an everlasting life in a fallen, corrupted body. His goal isn't that you live to be 100 or 50 or 30 or 20 for that matter. His goal is that you live forever.
The goal, the end, the point, the Lord Jesus has for your individual life isn't financial wealth, medical strength, or emotional health. All this He might, could, or has given you even as He might give them to the unjust, the unbeliever, or even the persecutor. All this He can give without any cost to Him. He could bring you to such an end, goal, point cheaply. But the goal, the end He is bringing you to a new heaven, a new earth, in a new body and life, that cost Him dearly, a lot more than you know.
Your telos cost Him everything. God went "all in" to bring you to the end, the goal, the place He picked for you. He pushed into the pot His only beloved Son. He put Him on the table. No, He put the table, the two tables of the Law squarely on top of Him. And as Samson carried the giant gates of Gaza to the hill of Hebron, Jesus carried the Two Tables of the Law, that are far too heavy for us to carry and that convict us every step of the way, all the way to a hill called Calvary.
But keeping God's Laws perfectly wasn't enough to appease the wrath of God against us; that wasn't enough to purchase new bodies and lives for us let alone new heavens and a new earth. It wasn't enough that God the Father had to watch His only beloved Son fulfill, keep, live under Laws that were never met for God. No, He had to watch His Divine Son suffer, bleed, cry and die to pay for our breaking the Law.
We rightly stand in awe of men who have shed their blood to gain a beach, to win a bridge, to protect a city. We speak in hushed tones; we take our hat off; we decorate their graves. But if they gave their blood for us personally, if we were on that beach, at that bridge, or in that city, well we're overcome with thanks and humility. How much more do we revere, honor, and give humble thanks to the God who shed His blood for us?
Remember the movie "Saving Private Ryan?" How often in Ryan's long life did he remember and give humble thanks for that squad of men who went through figurative hell to save him? How their sacrifice must have emboldened him, encouraged him, strengthened him to endure. Your Lord Jesus went through real hell to save just you for a goal, an end, a fulfillment that is far better than you can imagine. Let this embolden, encourage, and strengthen you to endure. But there's more; Private Ryan remembered all that men did for him while standing at their graves. We remember all that God did for us at His altar. And we can do more than remember here. By partaking of the same Body and Blood Jesus gave and shed for us on the cross we are "strengthened and preserved in the true faith" to the end, to the goal, to the fulfillment God has for us.
Yes, there are birth pains to go through; there are deceivers to watch out for and panics to avoid. But birth pains say new life is on the way. The woman who finally goes into labor is glad that the pains have started and is encouraged to endure them not because she likes pain but because of what is at the end of those pains: new life.
As bad as the turmoil, the persecution, the hatred may get for all who bear the name of Jesus, nothing stops Jesus from bringing forth the new life He has planned. The Gospel will be preached to all nations. The one thing that Satan would frustrate, stop, and end, is the one thing he'll never be able to. New life, that is forgiven, resurrected, endless life comes from the Gospel that Jesus carried away God's Law that makes guilty the world and suffered it's eternal death sentence in the world's place. New Life is birthed and lives from this Gospel being proclaimed and though Satan would muzzle it or muffle it by persecution, threats, false teachers, and even death, he can't. Where one Gospel preacher dies or apostatizes, the Lord Jesus raises up another till all nations have heard.
That's encouraging; that's strengthening; that emboldening, but there's more. When all that is physical in you wants to die, to give up, give out, give in, the Holy Spirit won't let you. The Spirit given to you in your Baptism always, constantly takes from Jesus and gives to you. He gives what you don't have, and ought not to look for in yourself. He gives you the holiness, the strength, the endurance of Jesus. When the Devil stands up and questions your endurance don't look inside of you where the Devil points you. Look outside to the Crucified Jesus on you in Baptism, in you in Communion, and for you in the Word. There is your endurance; there is your end, your goal, your telos." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third-Last Sunday in the Church Year (20091108); Mark 13: 1-13