23rd Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 22.23 “The Only Thing…” Mal. 4:1-6, Luke 21:5-28
“The only thing about the end of the world that will be difficult for me, when it comes, is pretending I’m not excited.”
This should be the mantra for every Christian contemplating the Last Things presented to us in our lectionary reading for this Sunday. I know. Some will object: “But, Pastor! That’s the same thing on the t-shirt you like so much about the Zombie Apocalypse. Surely, the Last Day, the Parousia of our Lord, will be more somber, serious, and less gruesome than the Zombie Apocalypse! Right?”
Let’s look at it more closely, starting with good, old Malachi: He says “Behold! The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and the evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root not branch.” I never thought “Ablaze!” was a great slogan for our church in the noughties, nor that our Synod President at the time really understood what this passage says, exactly.
We’re like, “Yeah! I can hardly wait for the holy fire to set the arrogant and the evildoers Ablaze! What a time to be alive that will be!” But here’s the thing, simply put: The “Sun of Righteousness that shall rise with healing in his wings” and the fire burning like an oven that consumes the arrogant and evildoers is the same Light! It’s the Sun that is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And the light that is a warm, healing glow (like a spa treatment) or the sun on a Caribbean beach in mid-winter, is the exact same fire that burns the arrogant and evildoers to a crisp, real toasty-like.
Only when we grasp this: that the light of heaven and the fire of hell is exactly the same Sun that shines from the Face of Jesus Christ do we get that: the beauty (and the terror!) of the Last Day is really the exact same thing, for us all. Donna Tartt was so right when she has one of her characters say, in the “Secret History”, that “beauty is terror”. Just like Pope Pius XIII famously said: “Beauty, even at extreme temperatures, is still Beauty”. That Pope was speaking there to a wicked Cardinal he was banishing to Ketchikan, Alaska, but the papal observation applies to very hot places like hell, also! And, after all: Dante says the inner ring of hell is icy-cold.
It’s like my friend Brad, interviewed by a local newspaper reporter writing about the annual SAT ritual we endured that fine summer of 1980. Brad finished, as I recall, an hour early, not needing the 3 hours provided. The local reporter asked him: “Was the test was hard?” Brad mused thoughtfully, and replied: “Was it hard? Well; I look at it like this: if it was hard for me, it will be much harder for the rest of them.” The reporter was appalled at the arrogance. But Brad scored a 99th percentile SAT, was a National Merit Scholar. Is it arrogance if you really are the smartest one in the room? I suppose it might be. But Brad was, and is, most always, the smartest guy in any room. And the arrogance is feigned, mostly; I think. But the brilliance is real…
It’s like this: the fire of the last day will engulf us all. It will be, as Brad (now an ER doc in St. Louis) likes to say when a patient asks him: “Doc! Is this gonna, hurt?” “Well ma’am: it’s not an entirely benign procedure.” The fire of the last day is going to hurt like hell! It will scorch us all! The sun of righteousness is so for the saint in us. But for the sinner in us (which is all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time) it is gonna hurt like hell!
Luther sees that Xns are 100% sinner, 100% saint. It’s not like we’re part one and part the other. No! Living by our wits, we’re entirely sinful, bound to burn; living by faith, we’re entirely holy, headed for heaven.
So, the only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse, er, the Last Day, when it comes, that will be difficult for us is pretending we’re not excited. But the excitement is not simple. There are equal measures extreme Beauty and extreme Terror awaiting us all at that Day.
In our Gospel from Luke 21, our Lord says more about this. Every stone of the Temple in Jerusalem (the holiest place on earth) will be torn down and burned up. Think! If the holiest place on earth cannot pass through the fire of the Last Day without total destruction, what will happen to the worshipers in the building?! Roh-oh, Scoob! It’s going to be one hell of a Day!
But here’s the thing about hell: Jesus has been there, done that, for us, in our place. He took our sin on himself at the Jordan, baptized by John, became Sin Personified, took the full blast of hell’s blaze on the cross, was totally damned, destroyed, crucified, buried. He blazed a trail through the very heart of hell (blazed, fires of hell, see what I did there? 😉 and following hot on his heels (did it again ;-), caught up by His Word and Sacraments, the fire becomes for the sinner in us a blaze that leaves no stone in us untouched, totally torched, till all that’s left of us will be the saint in us, who, finally!, shines like the Son, bronzed by the Sun of Righteousness, with healing on his wings, as if lying on a Caribbean beach on a warm, summer day with a delightful breeze wafting off the sea…
Before that Day, we will have plenty of chances to rehearse this dying and rising, the Beauty and the Terror of IT. Being marked by Christ’s cross, we’ll be hated and hounded by the powers of this world and hell as our Lord Christ was. But… Jesus will give us all smart-mouths that will speak a wisdom our adversaries cannot withstand, yet: they will remain adversaries and come after us all the harder and more hateful ‘cause we’re smarter… (!)
Yet, it’s true: “The only thing about the end of the world that will be difficult, for me, when it comes, is pretending I’m not excited”. This excitement is not really at the adversaries who mocked and persecuted us getting their comeuppance. Mainly, it’s that the smart-mouthed, arrogant, brash, cocky, annoying old me will finally get his comeuppance, too! That the sinful, old, self-centered me finally gets burned up, once and for all, done away with, and the me I would have been without sin finally rises—that’s the real joy…
“I don’t want to be happy,” Gregory, goofy hero of the 80’s film Gregory’s Girl says to the prettiest girl in school, “I want to be with you.” So with saints. We don’t want to live forever 100% sinner, 100% saint, 200% confused. We don’t wanna be happy. We just wanna be with Jesus… everywhere. (Fleetwood Mac, reference 😉
Someone said Tuesday in our bible class, “Pastor: we don’t believe in purgatory but we do believe in a purgation, right?” And that is exceptionally well said! To finally achieve humility means our smart-mouth finally turns wise, gentle, not arrogant. And we won’t get there—well, I won’t get there—without a powerful lotta burnin’!
Like Isaiah needed the live coal from the fire of the heavenly altar jammed in his mouth, all our smart-mouths need the same hot coal spa treatment. All of our selves, really—body and soul—need the Sun of Righteousness to scorch away our sin—the purgation that burns off the wood, straw, and hay of worldliness so we can look up (cheerfully) and lift up our heads at the redemption that draws nigh.
And the only thing left to say is: Amen! Come, Lord Jesus…