Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent: God's last word

Opening Sentence
Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Mark 8:34

Collect of the Day
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 66, 67

Lessons: Genesis 48:8-22, Romans 8:11-25, John 6:27-40

When Christians speak of the “eschatological hope,” they mean precisely what the term implies. The “last word” is a word of hope. It speaks of a world to come which is infinitely more glorious than the world that now is. Sickness and sorrow, pain and death will be no more. The incarnate Word himself, Jesus Christ, will reign in all his glory as King of kings and Lord of lords, his royal presence (parousia) being the centerpiece of God’s new creation.

You might have a hard time, however, discerning such a hope amidst the hype generated by the self-appointed "prophecy experts" who are always warning of the impending destruction of the world. Such sensationalism has long been one of the more embarrassing excesses of Christian eschatology. It is easy to paint a very grim picture by taking particular apocalyptic texts from Scripture out of their literary and historical context and transposing them across two millennia to be arbitrarily applied to current world events. Jesus did indeed speak of “wars and rumors of wars,” of nation rising against nation “and kingdom against kingdom,” of “famines and earthquakes in various places” (cf. Matthew 24:6-7). He also said most emphatically, however, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Matthew 24:34). He was speaking specifically about events which were to take place within roughly forty years following his death and resurrection, culminating with the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. Moreover, he was drawing a parallel between the ordeal his first disciples would have to endure during that period with his own ordeal of suffering, death, and resurrection which he was about to endure.

Any attempt to read into current events a parallel with the ordeal of the first century church cannot overlook the singular event which gave Jesus’ first followers the hope and the courage to endure in the face of relentless persecution. That singular event was, and is, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For in the crucified and risen Christ is embodied the “end” toward which all of history is moving. God’s “last word” is not destruction and death, but redemption and life. As Christ endured suffering before entering into glory, so must all who would share with him in that glory. Paul even goes so far as to say, in today's epistle reading, that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).

Earthquakes and famines, wars and rumors of wars, suffering and painful sorrow are not the end of the world. Jesus, in fact, said such things “are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). They are reminders that we live in the midst of a creation out of sync with God’s purpose, longing to “be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Such events do remind us that “the end is near,” but that ought not to inspire fear. Rather, it ought to inspire hope in the midst of all the suffering brought on by such events. For “the end” is Christ himself, and in Christ is embodied not the death of humanity, but humanity raised to the fullness of life; not the destruction of creation, but creation redeemed out of its bondage to reflect once again that glory which was “in the beginning.”

Rejoice, the Lord is King