Sunday, November 30, 2014
At the Nebraska Synod Assembly last May, our keynote speaker, Pastor Paul Hoffman, noted that as Christians, we live our lives with a different rhythm. He gave this example: usually, when you read a book or watch a movie, you expect to hear the story in sequential order: beginning, middle, ending. The Christian life, however, starts with the end. Our life in Christ looks like this: end, beginning, middle. Ever since I heard Pastor Hoffman speak, I’ve been thinking about this different pattern – end, beginning, middle. You see, our life with Christ really does start with the end. We first have to die to live. That’s what we say happens at our baptism – “you have been born anew through the living and abiding Word of God,” we say. The old life dies and is drowned so that we have a new beginning in Christ. Whatever happened in our past, whatever our regrets, mistakes, and sins big and small, all those things died on that cross with Jesus. Jesus’ story is no different – our lives are changed because of Jesus’ end – Jesus dies. But that’s not the end, that’s only the beginning, as we learn that on the third day, Easter Sunday, Christ is risen so that we too might have newness of life. End, beginning, middle.
It might not be surprising or new to you that just like our lives as Christians, just like Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection, the Christian church year starts with the end, then the beginning, then the middle. So we begin the new church year today, at the end of the year, really – the last day of November anyway. We don’t begin as you might begin a good story with Jesus’ birth, we begin with this season of Advent talking about the end – end times, to be exact. We begin with the end – our expectation that Christ will come again. Regrettably, we don’t have any exciting children’s Sunday School programs retelling this gospel passage from Matthew, but we start out this new year with a bang to remind us that our life in Christ looks different.
Our life in Christ looks different. Today all the news shows are starting their “look back on 2014,” businesses reconcile their books for the annual audit, organizations plan their 2015 budgets, and stores prepare for their end of the year sales, but we in an already new church year look forward to the future when we will be with Christ again. Mark’s gospel this morning tells us to be alert and to keep awake “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” We believe, because Christ was born for us at Christmastime 2000 plus years ago, Christ will come again as he promised. We don’t have to wait until December 25 or January 1 for our new lives to begin – our new life in Christ begins today and every day when we remember: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, for us. End, beginning, middle. But if you read the gospel closely this morning, you’ll notice that Jesus isn’t talking about the end or the beginning as much as he’s talking about the middle.
You see, early followers of Jesus were wrestling with some of the same questions we wrestle with today. Once Jesus had died, was raised, and ascended into heaven, they started to wonder about when he might return as he’d promised. And they also wondered what they should be doing in the meantime. The movie industry has profited greatly from human beings wondering throughout the centuries about when the world might end, and how. Just think about this list of recent movies: Left Behind, Interstellar, Divergent, the Hunger Games, and so on. We could spend all of our time here on earth worrying about the future – worrying about the immediate future of paying the bills and taking care of our health, worrying about what will happen to us after we die, worrying about what will happen to our families, and what will happen to life here on Earth. We worry and wonder about the end.
But Jesus has good news for us – the end has already come. In Christ, our lives started with the end and then with a new beginning. Right now, our lives are about how we live our lives in the middle, knowing that Christ has already taken care of our future. “Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day,” Luther so powerfully wrote in the hymn A Mighty Fortress. Jesus has already won! We are his and his alone forever. The only question left to ask is not, “What will happen to me when I die?” or “What will happen when Christ comes again?” It is simply, “Now that my beginning and end is in Christ, how shall I live life in the middle? How am I living my life today?” Even before Jesus died and was raised from the dead, he was anticipating that people would be asking this question, so he instructs us in his message today to wake up! Not to stand around waiting for Jesus to take us up into heaven, not to sit around on the couch waiting for something to happen, but to live as if Jesus might come back tomorrow – or even tonight
End, beginning, middle – how do we live our lives in the middle? It seems like every year after Thanksgiving, rather than enjoying the beauty and special-ness of this season, I’m tempted to rush through it. Do any of you have checklists like mine? Bake cookies for the neighbors, buy & wrap presents for family, mail Christmas cards, host and attend Christmas parties, prepare special Christmas worship services…the list can go on and on. We could spend most of our lives worrying about the future, but Christ calls us into the middle to be present and enjoy this present moment as God’s gift to us. Wake up! Pay attention and be alert as to where Christ is active and living through you right here and right now today!, the gospel of Mark calls to us. The reality is when Jesus talks about the master giving each of his slaves work to do, I don’t think that any of these tasks were on his list. God gives us kingdom work to live life in the middle, as if Jesus may just show up again tonight. This kingdom work is loving our neighbors, serving the least of these, nurturing our relationship with God in worship, study, and prayer, and sharing the good news about Jesus wherever we go.
It’s easy to forget that God has called us to this kingdom work in the midst of all of these lists. This week, I got to visit our longtime member Russ Hannibal, who happens to be 102. Russ is doing remarkably well for someone over one century old, and if you’ve ever visited Russ, he will certainly tell you ONE reason he may have had the privilege to live to such a ripe age: “If I can make a small difference in someone’s life, even if it’s just putting a smile on someone’s face,” he’ll tell you, “that day hasn’t been wasted.” The power of Jesus Christ, working through a guy like Russ, gives him the courage and the motivation to live life in the middle between baptism and death.
You have permission to put down your Christmas preparation lists for a moment and remember the whole reason Christ came to Earth as a little baby in the first place – to save you and me so we don’t need to worry about the future. Our future – our end and our beginning – is secured in Jesus Christ. When we are able to see our lives as a gift from God, then we are able to start living with different priorities, to live a life that matters, doing God’s kingdom work. As we begin this new church year, may we be sustained and encouraged that our story is inextricably bound to Jesus’ story: this Jesus is God born for us, died for us, raised for us, to be in the midst of us. THAT is living life in the middle. Amen.