Sunday, November 17, 2013

Last Days and Good Endings


We live in the last days.  Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple to illustrate his point.  And many of his followers have been misconstruing his meaning ever since.
Jesus says that, in him, God has already acted decisively to redeem the creation and to reconcile all things to himself.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have already passed the crucial turning point. 
God’s work is not yet finished.  In his Second Coming Jesus will complete what he has already begun.  The age that we inhabit is an in-between time, the time between the first and the second coming.  These are the last days before all things are brought to completion.  Jesus wants us to shape our daily living with this assurance.
Carl Spitzweg's "The Portrait Painter"
Unfortunately, many of us have misunderstood what Jesus means by “the last days,” and that misunderstanding has distorted lives with anxious urgency, fear, and despair.  By contrast, Jesus intends for his teaching about the last days to inspire perseverance, joy, and peace.
Let’s recover a sense of living in the last days that sets us free to make our lives a proclamation of Good News.  I believe that thinking about these three questions will help us do just that:
How have Jesus’ followers misconstrued what he means by living in the last days?
What does Jesus teach us about the last days?
How does our assurance that we are in the last days shape our life?
Time’s Up!
There are a variety of harmful misinterpretations of Jesus’ teaching about the last days.  I’m going to focus on just one.  Some people live in fear of the voice that says, “Time’s up! Now your work is going to be graded!”
I’ll share an experience from my time as a graduate student in philosophy to illustrate my point.
Proctoring exams was one of my least favorite duties as a teaching assistant, or TA as we used to call it.  We grad students served as TA’s in introductory courses, teaching a class here and there but doing mostly extra-classroom duties.  We graded papers, held extended help sessions, and proctored exams.
What made proctoring especially unpleasant for me was taking up the test papers when the time was up.  

Viktor Vasnetsov's "Judgment Day"

There were some very bright, hard-working students who struggled with timed exams.  They knew the material and—for reasons that we understand much better today and now usually make accommodation for—could not complete the exam.  

Others had simply managed their time poorly, pouring energy into essays worth fewer points and leaving the main essay for last, only to run out of time to execute what they had in mind.
What they had within them never made it out onto the page or their frayed nerves adversely effected their ability to write clearly and precisely. Their grades suffered as a result.  It wasn’t fair, really.  The exam measured learning for some, but it also penalized others for learning disabilities, unhelpful test-taking strategies, and crippling anxiety.  I knew this firsthand precisely because I had tutored these young minds.
That’s why I hated saying, “Time’s up! Put down your pens, close your exam booklets, and turn in your work.”  While only a few of these students actually cried in the classroom, I know that some shed tears back in the dorm.  And few of them successfully concealed the feelings of failure and fear of rejection that they harbored in their souls.
Some people suffer under the misconception that this life is one big timed test.  The time you’re given on the planet is all the time you get, and everything you do will be graded by the most demanding standards imaginable.
The clock is ticking, so you better not waste a moment.  When the time is up, God will judge whether or not your test results get you into heaven or condemn you to hell.
Living as if life were a timed test affects different people in different ways, but here are some common patterns.
Edvard Munch's "Despair"
Thinking of God as an objective test-grader can make some people morally rigid and judgmental.  They are like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Convinced that they have always done what is right, they assume that they deserve a reward for their conduct, look with contempt on those whom they consider their moral inferior, and take some pleasure in the thought that those who don’t make the grade will be punished.
Others live in dread of judgment because they are all too aware of their own spotty record.  Their dread expresses itself in two ways.
First, they fear God, since they assume that his only interest in them is to give them the lousy grade they assume that they richly deserve.  Second, they keep secrets from other people from fear of rejection.  If life is a test, and they already see themselves as eventual failures, they assume that others will reject them once they’re found out for what they really are.
God as test-grader and life as a timed test makes us too big for our own moral britches or spiritually flattens us.  But the biggest problem of all with this understanding of God and the last days is that it simply discounts who Jesus is and what he does in our lives.
The Sense of an Ending
That brings us to our second question.  What does Jesus teach us about the last days?
Let me clarify that question.  I don’t mean, “What words does Jesus provide about the last days?”  Instead, I want us to think about who Jesus is and how that makes these the last days.
Jesus is God with us, God come to meet us on our own messy turf.  In Jesus, God is up to his elbows in our very real existence.  Jesus is the God who refuses to stand at arm’s length and judge us.  Instead, he is the God who joins us in life and nurtures us along each step of the way.  
Life is not a test.  We do not work independently from God only to offer him a completed product for final judgment.
Instead, life is a process in which God is already involved and to which God is unwaveringly committed.  You have probably heard some people say that we are a work in progress.  But if we take the lesson of Jesus seriously, we see that we are not just our own work.  We are always already God’s work in progress.
Albert Joseph Moore's "The End of the Story"
Being in the last days means that we can be assured that God is working toward our good, no matter what happens.  We face adversity, endure heartache, experience failure, and lose our way in this life.  But being in the last days means that God is making something of what might seem like an unmanageable mess to us.
By way of analogy, think about what it’s like to read a novel or watch a movie.  Even when things seem to be flying apart at the seams for the main character, we keep reading or watching because we have a sense that, at the end, all these tensions will be resolved and everything will make sense.



There is an ending, not merely an end.  It will all make sense, not just stop.  And in God, that ending will be good.  To live in the last days is to live in the assurance that, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, God is working all things together for the good.
Works in Progress
And this brings us to the third and final question.  How does our assurance that we are in the last days shape our life?
There are two key points that I’ll focus on.  When we take them to heart, we begin responding to the world around us in way that announces the Gospel.  The points are:
We and others are works in progress.  
We are set free to do the good that we can do.  We don’t have to make everything right. God is doing that.  God will sweep our finite good into infinite mercy.
Here are some of the fruits we bear when we trust the truth of these principles.


Carl Larsson's "The Carpenter Shop"
We begin to experience tranquility, because we can take reality on its own terms.  Life is not always fair, but even more crucially, life is not always just.  We are called only to do the limited good that we can do while trusting that God is making perfect justice happen in his time.
Forgiveness begins when we acknowledge that we are works in progress and extend the same realization to those who have injured us.  God is working on them and with them just like he is doing on and with us.
Compassion becomes action.  We are moved by the hunger, fear, loneliness, suffering, and want felt by others to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  Our happiness is interwoven with the happiness of the stranger, because we know them to be a friend of our dearest friend: Jesus himself.


These are the last days.  God is not bringing things to an end.  He is working things toward an ending.  A good ending.  An ending in which all things are made right, made whole, and brought to joyful completion.
This sermon was preached at Calvary Episcopal Church in Bunkie, Louisiana.

2 comments:

  1. "things which are cast down are being raised up.." Thank you Bishop Owensby.
    Madge

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