Hope Outdoes Optimism

12.2.18 Advent 1

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Luke 21:25-36

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

 

Which one is a stronger description: you are a hopeful person, or you are an optimistic person;  “I hope it doesn’t snow today,” or “I am optimistic it will not snow today”?  The ideas are certainly similar – both are looking for a favorable future, both are on the positive side of the spectrum – but there is a difference. Doesn’t the one who says, “I am an optimistic person,” or “I am optimistic it won’t snow today,” convey a bit more confidence?

The way these two words are used nowadays optimism is an ongoing trait, which describes how you carry yourself.  It tells someone how you are going to react in most if not all situations.  An optimistic person is always going to have a glint in their eye and a bounce in their step.  But the way we use hope makes it seem a little less confident, a little less cheerful.  The person who says, “I hope it doesn’t snow today” is almost telling us, “but it probably will, if not today then soon.”

In Scripture, “hope” is actually more certain and more confident than that, because of what it is connected to.  It’s not a whimsical wish for something good to happen – possibly, potentially, maybe.  Hope is connected to the promises of God, promises that the holy and perfect God can never break.  And so we have a lot more that optimism for our future.  We have hope – certain hope, confident hope – because our hope is connected to the promises of God.

And one of Jesus’ promises is that he is coming back.  That’s what Jesus is referring to in this section from Luke 21.  Like I said at the beginning of the service today, Advent points us to the coming of Christ.  It’s is going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon.  Now, I’m not making any predictions, that would be utter foolishness because Jesus has not told us when he is coming back.  But he has told us the kind of things, or signs, that will be happening before he comes back.  Earlier in this chapter he speaks of some: “Nations will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom.  There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”  Does that sound like the kind of stuff we experience now?  And then, we hear what Jesus tells us in the reading for today: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  And then Jesus tells this little parable about trees. “When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”

When you look around at our world right now, what season does it look like to you?  Doesn’t it sound a lot like Jesus’ return is not too far off?  Doesn’t it sound like it’s a good time be ready for him?

But how many of us are living that way?  How many of us are standing up above all the negative voices?  How many of us are lifting our heads away from all the carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life that Jesus mentions?  How many of us are readying ourselves for Christ and always on the watch for him?

Or do you have one (or a few) of those long lists.  You know the ones.  They’re all the things that you need to do to get ready for Christmas celebrations.  They’re all the people you need to buy for.  They’re all the cards you need to send.  They’re all the gifts you need to get.  They’re all the things at work.  On and on they go.   All the over-indulgence in this world, is that going to help you?  Do you really think happiness can be found and kept when it’s all about gratifying all my desires and finishing off all my lists, or when it’s time spent drowning all the stress and sorrows away?

When all these things are happening around you, when they are even happening in your life, do you know where that leads?  Jesus says, “Your hearts are weighed down…and [you are stuck in a trap].”  Boy, I look around at our world and I see people who are trying to balance a lot.  Some of the things may even be good things, helpful things, but the things of this world, the anxieties of this life are a weight that is too heavy to handle.  I fail to keep my head constantly up to listen to Christ, my Lord, and look for his coming.  Other voices become noisier and draw my gaze.  Hardships that are intended to get my eyes off myself and off of this world and direct me to full reliance on Jesus become overwhelming and weigh me down.  How about you?

Jesus says that it’s going to be like that all the way up to his return.  “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  What he’s saying is that the type of people who are distracted and weighed down will always be around.  The type of people who reject Jesus and yearn for the desires of their own making will always fill this world until he comes back.

Hearing these kinds of promises, you can help but ask, “How am I supposed to be filled with hope, how am I supposed to be confident and ready, when there is so much going on to crush my God-given hope?”

Well, Jesus has a promise for you who are weighed down.  Jesus has a promise for you who are troubled and hurting.  Jesus has a promise for you and you and every single person who is looking for hope. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

When you are feeling lost and alone, this is what Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me and I lay down my life for the sheep…only to take it up again.”  You have a shepherd who knows you, knows how to find you, knows how to rescue you, knows how to make you safe for eternity.

When you are struggling in the storm, this is what Jesus says: “Take courage!  It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  And to the storm: “Quiet! Be still!” and the storm has to listen.

When you are in the darkness of despair and depression, this is what Jesus says: “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

When you are stuck, when you are negative, when you have nowhere to turn, no fix that works, when you are at a loss thinking your situation is absolutely impossible, this is what Jesus says: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

When death is closing in on you and you know that you won’t get better, this is what Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.

Should I keep going?  None of these promises, not one of the passages inspired and written by our God in the Bible will ever be broken.  You have that promise from your Lord and Savior.

Well, maybe just one more.  You know all those sins that haunt you?  You know all the stories that you have about carousing and drunkenness and when anxiety won you over and weighed your heart down?  Jesus had something to say about all those sins and the payment that God demands for each and every one of your sins and mine.  Jesus had a final word about the task of accomplishing our forgiveness and making the payment once for all.  He said, “It is finished.”  Yeah, those words will never pass away.

These promises from Jesus give us real hope, not the possibly, potentially, maybe kind of hope, but the God-given, certain, sure, confident hope that can never be undone.  That’s what Christ has given us.

The line between those who have this hope from Jesus and those who do not is enormous.  Jesus describes what the difference will be when he returns.  For those who don’t have his kind of hope, they will faint from terror.  They will be in anguish and perplexity at what is happening, having no clue what to do to escape it.  Those who don’t faint will look for a place to hide to no avail.  But to those who have hope from Jesus, those who believe in his promises? Different story!  Jesus says, “When you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  Believers do not hide.  We stand up and lift our heads without fear because our redemption is drawing near.  The Savior who promises to prepare a place for us in his heavenly home is making good on that promise, so we rejoice and will forever in heaven.

With that kind of hope we have a new attitude and a new mission.  “Be careful,” Jesus says.  Literally, “watch yourselves.”  Know what you are up against.  Acknowledge the temptations that the devil uses, which ones are especially hard for you, and flee from them.  Flee from evil and run back to the promises of your Savior in his Word and sacrament.  Keep the things that sustain your faith close to you.

“Be always on the watch,” Jesus says.  Literally, “don’t sleep.”  Be like a guard on the night watch, like Ben Stiller in those Night at the Museum movies.  Don’t let anything from the passing days and years lull you to sleep.  Stay active. Be a part of the God’s mission team to reach more for Christ.  Get involved.

“Pray,” he says.  What a gift we have to talk to the Lord of heaven and earth! Be bold with God.  Present your requests in faith and trust his answers because he will give you everything you need so that on the Last Day “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” in joy and praise for all that he has done for you.

When he comes again, Jesus will not be little, tiny, helpless baby.  He will not even be meek and humbled as he suffered and died.  “The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.” What a day that will be.  But it’s not here yet.  We live in this in between time, after Christ came as the baby of Bethlehem but before Christ returns as the great and glorious Judge.  That means there is suffering, there is pain, and there is strife, even for and sometimes especially for believers.  But with the promises of God we are able to endure, to persevere, to patiently wait, to live joyously, to carry out the mission God has given us.  God has given us something more that optimism.  We have his hope.  Amen.   

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HOW TO SOUND LIKE PAUL

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2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

 

There comes a time in a person’s life when you hear that clock ticking.  Really it’s been winding down ever since they were born, but it stayed off in the distance like a storm that’s not even on the radar yet. So it goes mostly ignored.  This clock ticks in the far off hypothetical, but the time comes when it creeps with every tick and tock up to the probable.

Paul is in that probable phase, hearing every tick and tock of life’s clock getting closer to the last stroke.  We aren’t sure when it started getting louder.  Was it when they had him chained up and lowered him into the dungeon? Was it during his first defense, when he was left alone?  Whenever it happened, Paul writes these words of his second letter to Timothy knowing that his end is near.

So, what would you expect him to say?  As we have seen from the past few weeks, Paul is so passionate and encouraging.  I think we would expect that.  If Paul hears that clock ticking loudly, then of course now would be the time to share inspiring messages and words of wisdom.  Of course, he would share personal advice with his colleague and friend, Timothy.  But these calm, confident words take it to another level, don’t they? And it makes a guy wonder, how could Paul be so sure?

Doesn’t Paul remember what he did?  Everyone who hears life’s clock ticking to its conclusion looks back on their life.  And when Paul looks back, he’s got quite the rap sheet.  He spent his youth enrolled in Pharisee school.  We know what that means: he grew up learning that laws and traditions were the focus of salvation and he grew up thinking that his ancestor Abraham is what connected him to God’s promise.  After his schooling, Paul’s interests got him involved with the same things Pharisees loved – hating Jesus and his followers.  But Paul was such a great student and so zealous that he took it up a notch.  He watched happily, as a Christian named Stephen was stoned to death.  He got permission to find more Jewish Christians outside of Palestine and arrest them for trial or death back in Jerusalem.  In fact, there are other places where Paul writes clearly about his past, admitting that he was zealous for persecuting Christians, that he was violent and filled with hate, that he was the worst.  And in another letter, he even admits that he always struggled with sin in various ways.

As the ticking clock gets louder for Paul, isn’t that the type of stuff we’d expect to hear about?  “Wow, I made such a mess back then.  Timothy, please forgive me for my horrible past! Please don’t count my persecutions, the pain I have caused others, against me.  Timothy, please focus on the positives and follow that example.”  You and I could relate to that.  Even if your clock is still ticking in the faded distance of the hypothetical, you could fill pages and pages with embracing mistakes, dumb decisions, and rebellion.  And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to shake all the things that haunt our past.

To make matters worse, you and I also must realize that God sees it all, a holy God, who says, “I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands,” and “the wages of sin is death.”  Our best efforts to avoid punishment or atone for our past sins cannot appease the Almighty God, who demands perfection.  Instead, we find ourselves in utter terror.  Past mistakes and haunting sins are a plague with the prognosis of death, because we know what God thinks of it.  Any infraction at any point, even just once, means that we cannot spend eternity with a holy God because we aren’t holy.

How can we deal with these facts?  How did Paul handle it? Well, he didn’t mention any of it, not one word about how he approved of Stephen’s death or hunted down Christians as if they were terrorists.  He didn’t even say anything about his struggles with doing too much against God and not enough for God.  Instead, he says, for I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Paul looks at his life as if it’s an offering to the Lord, something pleasing and acceptable in his eyes.  He looks forward to his departure.  If a Greek heard that word, they would think of loosening their boat’s towline from a dock and casting off.  Paul says, “I’m tied down here in this world with my sinful flesh, with pain and affliction, but the time is coming soon when I’ll be leaving here to go somewhere else.” There’s no, “I’ll be dead and gone soon.”  This is a guy who does not care one bit about burial plans, because he’s leaving this vail of tears. He looks back and says it was a good fight, that he finished strong.

How could a man with such a sinful past – yes, he was such a selfless servant of the Lord in ministry, but he had some serious skeletons too – ever be so confident? It’s only because of Jesus.  That’s it!  Jesus is the only possibility.  Jesus is the only way a person can look back on their life like it was an offering to God, like it was a good fight, a victorious finish.

Because only Jesus was perfect. Paul knew that Jesus had never failed.  Jesus didn’t make mistakes or dumb decisions.  He was never openly rebellious.  He never had zeal in the wrong place.  Paul met Jesus face to face on that road when he used to be a persecutor, and Jesus changed him.  Paul didn’t have to look back on a life of sin and guilt because Jesus paid for every last one.  Paul had the righteousness of Christ as his robe because the Holy Spirit had washed him clean at his baptism.  Paul knew that he was free from sin and it’s awful curse.

You have the same faith, because you were washed the same way through water and the Word.  The power of the Spirit gave you the same robe of righteousness.  You are connected to Christ, who paid for every last one of your sins.  You don’t have to look back with guilt over all the mistakes and rebellious ways.  You can sound like Paul, saying your life is an offering to the Lord because the Lord Jesus made your life pleasing and acceptable.  Through Christ, you can look at it like a good fight and a victory lap.

With that kind of life, you don’t have to talk about death the way most people do.  No, your past mistakes are gone from your record.  There is no fear.  There is no doubt.  Instead, we have bold faith just like Paul, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.”  Paul knew there’s only one way to get such a prize.  It’s Jesus.  With Jesus Paul was free from death.  Jesus not only won forgiveness on Calvary’s cross, but he crushed the power of death on Easter.  Every day Paul knew that.  Every day he lived with certainty that his Lord and Savior was alive and watching over him with forgiveness and love.  Every day he knew that heaven was his home because Jesus made the payment and opened the gates for him.  Every day of his ministry Paul proclaimed that good news to a dying world.  So, when the clock started ticking loudly in Paul’s ears, he was ready for his departure.  When the time came, he was content and thankful for the crown of righteousness that the Lord had promised him.

But it wasn’t just for Paul, was it? “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”  The crown isn’t just for people like the Apostle Paul, people who can look back on years of ministry and countless hours of serving people.  This crown is for you and for all who trust in Jesus Christ.

You go ahead and let the unbeliever stare off in disbelief.  Let them mumble those words uncertain words at a funeral, “Sorry for your loss.”  Not us!  Not us!  Because we have the same confidence to sound just like Paul. We can be bold in the face of death.  We can be happy and thankful when that clock starts ticking loudly.  Because the Lord has that same crown waiting for you.  It was paid for by the perfect blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  It was promised to you when the Holy Spirit cleansed your heart and life in baptism.  It is kept for you through the power of God’s Word.  Nothing can change that.  The Lord will always keep you in his hands.  He opened the door to heaven when he rose and he left it open for you.

Christians view death in such a great way, don’t we?  We sound just like Paul, with calm unshakable confidence, because we have a Savior who died for our sins and then destroyed the power of death.  We talk about the crown of righteousness.  We talk about life as an offering and a good fight of faith.  We can only do that through Christ.

And so that’s how we take care of our church, with our eyes on the right prize. Our ministry is not based on numbers.  Our ministry is not about having the coolest and best events or groups.   It isn’t about the friendly faces and popping personalities.  Our ministry is not based in gimmicks or traditions.  Our ministry is founded on the facts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Our ministry is based on the facts of law and gospel.  Our ministry is based on the transformational love of God, that he would change dead sinners into eternally living saints.  That’s how we sound like Paul.

So, keep it up, brothers and sisters.  Keep sounding crazy to the rest of the world.  Keep having this calm confidence that God has a crown in your future.  Keep that good news as the basis of everything we do and I promise, I promise, this ministry we share will be so powerful that not even the gates of hell will be able to withstand it.  God grant it.  Amen.