The New Year is Time to Wake up
Concordia Lutheran in San Antonio in switching to daylight savings time use to set their watches ahead during the Sunday service. It was a big deal; it made national news. Here was a Church that did not march to the beat of the same drummer as everyone else. Here was a Church that rather than take away an hour of sleep and thus effect Church attendance the next morning sacrificed an hour of their day. I've always thought that neat. In a sense this is what the Church means to do by beginning Her Church Year on the first Sunday of December rather than on January 1st. We begin our New Year at a different time than the world in which we live. And our New Year always begins the same way, "Wake, awake for night is flying!"
3 times in our text Jesus uses Greek words that can be translated, "Wake up." "Wake up! You don't know when that time will come." "Wake up because you don't know when the owner of the house will come back." "What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Wake up!'" Why does the Church begin Her year with the cry, "Wake up!" Because we've been sleeping. We've been put to sleep by this fallen, wicked world in which we live. We are on a journey through the wilderness to our Promised Land of heaven. The journey is long, hard, and boring, and we are overcome with sleep. "Just rest. Just rest. Just shut your eyes for a moment or two. Then you'll get back on your feet; then you'll continue the journey. Rest, rest, rest."
From the parable of the 10 sleeping virgins, to those off to see the wizard sleeping in the poppy field, to the wicked queen strumming her mandolin and speaking in a calming voice to the children of Narnia, to Odysseus on a journey back to his homeland, wife, and son being lulled by "honeyed plant" and Siren voice, the theme is the same: not continuing the journey because you've fallen asleep and forgot what you are really suppose to be about.
We've been put to sleep by this world around us. Concepts that really mean so very much to us have been taken away from us. Sin, death and the devil have been explained away, rationalized, away, medicated away, or educated away. A "nothing but" theology has robbed us of great truths that we needed to remember on our journey; because if we forget them, there is no point to the journey.
What's "nothing but theology?" You're all familiar with it. This is what has stolen the concept of sexual sin from us: sex is nothing but the normal functioning of hormones and reproductive instinct. Anger is nothing but repressed emotions. A belligerent attitude is nothing but acting out your low self-esteem. Worry is nothing but what any responsible parent, student, or person would do. Not coming to Church is nothing but getting the sleep you need. Misusing the name of the Lord is nothing but expressing yourself.
"Nothing but theology" has not only robbed us of our concept of sin, but of death too particularly the Christian understanding that the death that counts is the eternal one. Death is nothing but a normal part of the cycle of life. Death is nothing but the end of a living thing's life cycle; there is no judgment, no accountability; nothing after this. Death is nothing but a result of poor health or accidents; be healthy and safe and you'll be fine.
And finally "nothing but theology" robs us of the devil. The devil is nothing but the personification of evil. The devil, hell, and damnation are nothing but things made up by religion to scare people into following them. The devil is nothing but your imagination, nothing but your own conscience bothering you unnecessarily.
"Sleep, rest, hush; sin, death, and the devil aren't really stalking you in this world. It's nothing but your imagination. There really is no need to move on and through this." Robbing us of sin, death, and the devil, nothing but theology takes away the need for a journey at all. If there is no sin, death, or devil, then there is no need for forgiveness, life everlasting, or God Himself. My sin and guilt can be dealt with by nothing but better thoughts, right thinking, being positive. This sense of dying I have deep inside can be addressed by nothing but a healthier lifestyle. What need have I of a God or Savior to deliver me from a devil who is nothing but a boogie man?
"Sleep, sleep, my prettys," cackles the wicked witch. "You have no need to go to Oz; you don't really have things you can't figure out; you don't really have an aching heart, you don't really have fears. These are nothing but a lack of education, an unfulfilled life, an emotional disorder. Sleep, rest, where you are. As for all those thoughts of Oz and a place that can fulfill you deepest needs, that's nothing but a dream."
Have you ever been waken in the midst of dreaming to find you can't determine which is the dream and which is reality? It's very troubling, isn't it? This is the situation we Christians are in. We live in a world that relentlessly tells us the heavenly kingdom we long for is a dream world. This is all there is. No God will save us; no joys awaits us. Even though St. Paul tells us the direct opposite, that the unseen world is the eternal one and what it is seen is passing away, we buy into the lie that the eternal kingdom of God is the dream and what we see before us is the only reality.
So in our slumber we focus on this world. We pursue this temporary world as if it were eternal, and we forget about the supposed dream world. We pursue relationships with others as if they are the be all and end all of life. We pursue the best and brightest in this world because after all, what more is there? We must have the wealth and health of this world because what more could there be? I mean if you have your health, don't you have everything according to this world in which we live? And while money can't buy everything in this world, there is precious little that it can't.
Yet, strangely enough even when we have all that this world has to offer, it's still not enough. Forgetting about our sins, acting like they really don't matter doesn't work. Neither does wrapping yourself up in this life. A relentless aching, a longing sense remains that there really is something beyond this. Even through the din and roar of the busyness of this life notes from another more permanent world still manage to play on the ear. Try as we may, we just can't convince ourselves that this is all there is. Moments of love, moments of life, moments of joy in this life hint that they are only reflecting something more lovelier, something more alive, something more joyous beyond this. We are on the verge of waking up and finding that this world is the "dream" and the world without end is the reality.
But only Christ Jesus can wake us from this deadly sleep because only He can raise the dead. He came the first time proclaiming that apart from Him the living were really dead, the seeing were really blind, and the righteous were really guilty. This infuriated those who thought themselves alive, seeing, and righteous, but those who felt they were dying even though they were alive, those who thought they weren't seeing reality even though they could see, and those who felt guilty even though they were considered righteous by others, to these what Jesus preached was Good News.
It was this Good News that life, sight, and righteousness are only in Him that got Christ crucified. But He went to the cross bearing our death, blindness, and sins. Even though He was Life itself, He died our death. Even though He was Light itself, He was blindfolded and beat cruelly for our blindness. Even though He was Holiness itself, He was treated as the worst sinner in the world because that's what He was in the eyes of His Father. In His name, for the sake of His bleeding and dying, His suffering and crying, His damning and death, the place we dream of is open to sinners like us.
Wake up! There is an answer to the sin, death and devil that you can't ignore no matter how hard you try. Wake up! You weren't created to live in a fallen world hounded by not knowing, a hurting heart, or foreboding fears. You were created for an everlasting life of fellowship and friendship with God and heavenly things. Wake up! You've been living in a nightmare. There is more to life than what you can see, understand or even believe.!
Ah, but this One who did so much for us on that cross, this One who has promised us so much on the basis of what He did, has gone away from us. O yes, He promises to return for us. He promises to take us to His kingdom where neither disease or death, nor suffering or sighing, nor sin or sadness exist. But He is such a very long time in coming. He seems no closer than when we first believed, even though He tells us through St. Paul that He is ever closer all the time. But our Oz, our homeland, our Narnia still seem distant and sin, death and the devil weigh us down so. We want to rest, to shut our eyes for just a moment.
How will we ever stay awake? How will we ever be saved from falling back into the lie that heaven is the dream and earth the reality? Not by our might, determination, or discipline will we be able to stay awake. One of the surest ways to fall asleep is to determine you'll stay awake. The only way we will stay awake is if the Lord does it. How does He do it? By coming to us with signs of our heavenly home. Soldiers do this with pictures. They keep pictures of their loved ones who are far away to remind them of where they are going after the war is ended. Our Lord Jesus places "pictures" before us.
Here's the baptismal font before our eyes. It reminds us of a Water that is much more than water. A Water that is life-giving and rich in grace. A Water that is purer, richer and more satisfying than any water on earth. A Water to which Christ has attached His promise to forgive our sins, rescue us from death and the devil, and give us eternal salvation. A Water which reminds us of the Water of Life clear as crystal that flows from the throne of God in heaven.
And here before our eyes is the pulpit from which it is proclaimed that sinners are forgiven for the sake of Christ, that God's grace is more abundant than our sins, that even though we can always find sinfulness in ourselves God doesn't because of Christ. This forgiving Word echoes in our hearts reminding us of that place where God's Word rules everything and determines everything. If God says, death is life, sinners are saints, and the sick are healthy, then that's reality.
And dead center before our eyes is His altar of life where in Bread and Wine Christ comes in Body and Blood. Here is the point on earth where the real world of heaven meets this temporary one of earth. Here is the place where Body tastes like Bread and Blood tastes like Wine. Here is the place where the holy Lamb of God meets sinners and sinners aren't destroyed but fed everlasting life for everlasting life. Here the heavenly marriage supper of the Lamb that we dream about all our days is celebrated on earth.
It's a New Year; wake up dear friends! You were having a nightmare. This poor, benighted world isn't all there is. The guilt, and death and fear you feel is passing away. Christ is here in Word and Sacrament to assure you that the world without end where forgiveness, life, and peace reign is no dream. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (12-1-02), Mark 13:33-37