Listen to the sermon here:
Scripture: Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Marie is scared. She is not scared for herself. She is scared for her brother. She has just read Malachi 4:1-2 which says, “See , the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Marie feels close to God. She depends on God for guidance, comfort, friendship, structure, authority. Marie practices daily confession of her sins and receives the assurance of God’s forgiveness. She depends on God for her human relationships to be good.
Marie’s brother somehow missed this path. Even though Brother is actually kind in his dealings and has close friends, he is not a believer. He is not aware of the fullness of life which he is missing. Brother believes that God exists and does have some influence in the universe including the earth. But, Brother does not feel that God has anything to do with his daily life or his overall life.
Susan feels close to God very similarly to Marie. Susan has a daughter who somehow developed to become unkind, very unsettled, very unpredictable, very emotionally unstable, trying anything new that appears in her path whether it is safe or destructive to herself or to persons around her, whether they are friend or foe. Actually, that would be foe because no one could be called friend more than a few hours. Daughter was that miserable to be around. Also, rarely did she try anything safe. Somehow safe things did not appeal. It had to be dangerous to be appealing to Daughter.
Susan had banned Daughter from her home years ago because there was too much damage – physical damage as well as emotional damage – when Daughter was in the house. Susan had been helped by a therapist to declare it necessary for her own survival to be tough with Daughter. Susan usually does not know the whereabouts of Daughter. Susan’s mind gives her pictures of Daughter as a baby, as a toddler, as an elementary-age child. Where did things go wrong? Susan sees a beautiful child who was a bit demanding. Susan remembers wonderful parent/child sweet moments – moments of enjoying a rainbow together, moments of holding a new puppy together, feeding the puppy together. But somewhere, somehow, things went awry.
Susan does not know what may have happened to Daughter to make her bitter, to bring all the worst human tendencies to the forefront. Daughter would never say when encouraged to share what happened. It was rather gradual as this change sank into Daughter’s personality.
Both Marie and Susan pray earnestly and passionately for Brother and Daughter. They have tried additional approaches some of which worked for a time, some of which never worked at all – in fact, may have made the situations worse. We hear and say, “Once a parent always a parent.” We hear and say, “How can siblings who had the same parents, who lived in the same house together, become so different?”
We can understand Susan’s deep dismay for her daughter. We wonder why Marie is concerned about her brother, as his behavior and general personality is good and pleasant and he can function well at work and with friends. This is why! Both Susan and Marie look forward and believe in life everlasting in God’s heavenly kingdom, being greeted by the Father and by Jesus and being surrounded and filled by the Holy Spirit. The reading from Malachi and other passages in the Holy Word speak about the judging that will happen at the coming day when the Lord stands in front of us and gives the verdict.
Will we be invited into heaven – into the everlasting, complete kingdom of God, or will we be ordered into the place of torture for life everlasting? Marie and Susan love sibling and daughter enough to care. Their hearts and minds are filled with pain to think that the separation could happen. We are talking more than separation. We are talking torture as depicted in certain passages of the Bible.
Are we really expected to believe that the God who created us will arrange for this punishment? If not “arrange” then at least allow. Well, it is in the Bible! All of this depends on whether we believe that God dictated the Holy Word or whether he commissioned certain people in history to write as God inspired but did not dictate. Did these authors, verbally or with pen, hear the words and write them word for word or were there general purposes written with creative embellishments that happened as all things human happen? This dilemma is what separates congregations and religions.
Even in the New Testament, nothing was written “early on.” The apostles were under the impression that Jesus would come again quickly. There was no need to be writing what he said because very soon it would not matter. We have this hymn that says, “Soon and very soon we are going to see the King,” “king” meaning Jesus as the reigning deity coming to earth to start His new kingdom. This hymn was sung by people who desperately needed Jesus to come soon because their lives on earth were terrible – they were slaves. This song kept them going through back-breaking work in the hot sun minute by minute with little hope of relief. Only Jesus coming soon gave the necessary hope to put one foot in front of the other foot; enduring all kinds of punishment in many cases.
The apostles truly thought that Jesus was coming soon. Jesus promised to come again when he was leaving His followers to ascend to the Father. Jesus also said that he did not know the thoughts of the Father in regard to that matter. No one knew when that would be. Finally, the apostles realized that they had better be writing this precious, profound happening for posterity. They were inspired to get busy, they felt this urgency. Even so it was well into the First Century when these happenings – the birth, the work, the death, the rising, the ascension, the mission decree, the arrival of the Holy Spirit in an awesome way even though the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles earlier. These living men who had lived and walked and listened and had surrendered their own lives to walk beside this God-man, needed to be expressing the intimate instructions and teachings they had received.
So, memories being what they are and witnessing being what it is, each apostle, each author remembered a bit differently. What Jesus said to the group and crowds meant different things to different people. This happens in our congregations today. People will hear from the sermon a mixture of what the preacher is really saying with their own experiences and concerns and worries and personalities. It happens!
So when statements in the Bible – Old and New both – seem to be contradictory or even unimaginable, we need to remember how this great Book came to be the great Book. After these separate books or letters or essays were written, they were flying loose. Someone was inspired to think about the need to assemble the worthy writings between one cover. How were these decisions made? People gathered in “councils” to state criteria for what goes between the covers and what does not make the cut. Then they scrutinized each book mercilessly and had endless discussions about why or why not a certain writing should become official scripture.
So here we are; Marie and Susan have been led to believe that the ideas of heaven and hell and the separation at the end are true, to be as solid as a rock. Those of us who do not take these ideas as cast in stone need to be open enough to accept this interpretation. To Marie and Susan these were true enough to believe them. Therefore, Marie did not want her brother to be in the place of torture while she was in the free-of-pain, free-of-worry place that we call heaven. Susan pictured her Daughter in the extreme corners of the place of torture which we call Hell. It was tearing her apart. She was on the verge of a breakdown with all this sickness-producing worry.
Where is the hope for Marie and Susan? Should they scream and rant? Should they do a more gentle preaching on a constant basis? Should Susan open her home to her daughter just so that she may constantly be warning her daughter about this place called Hell? Do you remember that the last time you tried that method on anyone for any reason it did not work? This method does not work! Instead, bring out the honey. Be sweet. State what needs to be stated once with tempting whipped-cream-covered words. Live your life well. Be kind. Pray and pray and pray some more. Be careful that you are living and speaking as God requires and as Jesus urged us to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.
Sometimes we simply need to let go of active approaches to bring someone else to Christ. Sometimes we need to let the Holy Spirit do the work. Somewhere in scripture we can find the promise that God accepts people who repent at the last minute; maybe even last second. Remember the story of the workers whom a landlord hired? The workers who started at the last hour of the day were paid as much as the workers who started in the early morning and worked all day. That is hope enough for me. We can repent on our deathbeds and we will be saved for everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom.
But Susan is thinking, “What if Daughter does not even repent in the last minute? Then what?” Yes, then what? God loves us with an everlasting love. God created us and nurtured us and I believe that he cries over us and with us. Will God really condemn us at the last minute even if we do not repent?
Can Marie and Susan start to think that they have done all they could do for the persons they love? Can Marie and Susan and you and I come to the point of letting go and letting God do what God wills with ourselves and with the people we love. Can we ourselves allow ourselves the pleasure of joy in our close relationship with Jesus? A close relationship with God does not depend on how sinless we are, but instead on accepting God’s forgiveness and fullness of life as we have died with Christ in our baptism and we are alive with Christ in His resurrection.
Romans 8:38-39 says, “In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us. I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” Amen.