SERMON from 2-26-12–Jesus’ Final Week: The Return of the King

Matthew 24.24-36 (NRSV)

24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.  29 “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.


Jesus Final Week: The Return of the King


This Lenten sermon series will look quite different from what you are used to.  Not that it will contain anything all that different from what you are used to hearing during the most important timeframe in the Christian calendar, but it comes to you in a bit of a different package.


We are going to take the last week of Jesus life and zoom in on it–so we can gain a better insight into the meaning of it all.  If you have ever zoomed in on a photo on your personal computer, you have an idea of what this is going to be like.  When you zoom in on a photograph on your computer, it looks pixelated and distorted–initially.  Then, as your computer’s processor analyzes the finer details of the image, you see a clearer and more precise version of the larger picture.  That’s what we are doing.


For those of you who can tell me an interesting meal they consumed during the depression–or where you were when the Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan–it’s like taking a magnifying to that same photo.  Printed on paper, of course.

Why do this, especially with a group of people who–for the most part–know the drill when it comes to what Lent is and the different, specially-named days which it contains?  Well, we need to do it.  As refresher for ourselves.  As education for those new to the faith.  For those coming up in the faith.  One reason one might reasonably give for the stunning lack of Biblical and other Christian faith-related literacy is that we have done a bad job of conveying this important stuff to the next generation.


We have let Google make us sloppy and weak.  Just as Google has become a verb (as in “just Google it”), we need to be hyper-vigilant in remaking faith into a verb–instead of a boring noun.  A tired feather we put in our aging caps.


That process begins by our efforts to make sure we know what it is we believe.  And if we can’t make it there–heaven forbid–we at least know some of the basics.


Today, is the first sunday in Lent.  Technically, Sunday is not included in the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday–the traditional duration of Lent.  So, if you began to faithfully fast from something on Wednesday, Sunday’s don’t count.  Feel free to pick up that Snickers bar on your way home today.


At this point, we need to back up and talk about what Ash Wednesday is.  According to the UMC BOW (the official book of worship for the United Methodist Church), “[it] emphasizes a dual encounter…[confronting] our own mortality and [confessing] our sin before God within the community of faith.”  In other words, we realize that this life is a gift, we have squandered it in some fashion and we need to ask God for forgiveness–to maintain our relationship with God.  Ash Wednesday is to begin a time where we reemphasize to ourselves the importance of our connection to God.


Still, we need to back up even further.  Why do we have a day marking a time of “renewal” between us and God?  Well, look just one day prior to Ash Wednesday.  The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is known as Mardi Gras–or “Fat Tuesday.”  Of course, our minds automatically take a turn south when we hear Mardi Gras, as it is associated with a massive, debauched celebration down in N’oleans.


Protestants don’t really pay much attention to Mardi Gras–for the reasons I mentioned–but it would help us to understand Ash Wednesday and Lent.  Seeing as Lent ends with the church’s traditional observation of Holy Week–or “Jesus’ Final Week”–and that week ends with Easter (or the culmination of God’s plan for reunification of God and man), it seems appropriate to understand our part in it from the beginning.  That day of over-indulgence (in whatever form it comes) should symbolize to us our need for repentance and forgiveness.  Ash Wednesday should be our reminder that God still makes those things available to us.  Amen.


Each week, we will take a look at a different portion of that “bigger picture” I mentioned earlier.  Today, briefly, we are going to look at one of the topics of discussion facing Jesus during that week: the return of the king.


In the history of the church, the curiosity behind when Jesus will return has been prominent–and bewildering.  First, since the disciples sat down with Jesus post-resurrection, the desire to know when he was going to be back has permeated the minds of Jesus-followers.  It was the utmost concern for Paul, as his work was predicated upon the hope of Christ’s almost immediate return.  This helps to explain why Paul was predominantly against his disciples entering into marriage–and why he was, himself, single.  Why worry yourself with the responsibilities of marriage when there is work to be done to save the world for Christ’s return.  This thing isn’t inherently bad, but Paul’s ministerial context told him that it shouldn’t be a priority.  What was important was preparing themselves and others for Jesus return–the time of which he had a little wrong.  Paul thought Jesus would be back before the end of his time.  He was wrong, and he should have known better.


Second, it has taken up far too much of the church’s time since the post-Civil War era.  John Nelson Darby–Google him (and this one’s okay NOT to know)–began a movement which sees scripture and church history as being broken into different “dispensations.”  Again, Google it.  It’s not important that you know exactly what that means, but it has spawned the modern fascination with just when the world will come to an end.  Oh yeah, AND when Jesus is coming back.


The reason it’s so bewildering is because Jesus told us about the time he would return, but there were other more pressing things on his mind.  Of all of the things that Jesus is reported to have spoke about, he spoke about the kingdom of God the most.  Next on the list, Jesus talked most about money–specifically how we should treat it and how we should use it to care for the poor and less fortunate than ourselves.  So, then, how much did Jesus talk about when he would return?


As it turns out, Jesus doesn’t speak much about that.  However, what he does say on the matter should have been reason enough for us to not worry so much about the time and conditions under which he is going to return.  Our scripture today is Jesus addressing just this thing.


The time in which Jesus will return is going to be a scary time.  So scary that one can hardly blame those who have made such a stink about when they thought Jesus would return or the world was going to end.  False prophets.  Jesus coming with a sign the size of the sky from one end to the other.  Stars falling from the sky.  Heavens shaken.  That’s a pretty daunting thing to consider.  Jesus paints a pretty bleak picture, but the picture is brightened by the fact that it will mark his return–or second coming.


Another reason this is such a bewildering thing–the racket surrounding when it is Jesus will return–is because Jesus basically said all of our speculation, obscure mathematical calculations and over-reliance upon this one event are pretty much bunk–yes, I said bunk.


Verse 36: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  All of this speculation is in vain.  All of the searching of the book of Daniel and Revelation for number patterns to tell us when Jesus will return is for not.  In the Christian universe, we are not supposed to know, we won’t know and it doesn’t matter.


Our focus is to be our relationship with God.  How it’s going?  How are our lives being transformed by it?  How are we living in response to God’s grace and unconditional love?  These are the important questions the Christian should ask themselves.


And, it all begins with the simple act of recognizing the fallibility of our nature, asking God to forgive us, allowing him to transform us and seek to do his will the rest of our days.  This, however, is not an easy task.  How many of us can do anything of note on a consistent basis for our entire lives?  The good news–pun intended–is that God is patient with us and will work with us.  And on us.  Not just yesterday.  Not as long as we do this or that.  But for the rest of our lives.  For every Lent and beyond.


And thanks be to God for that.  AMEN.

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