The Last Man Standing
Today we begin the 3 week countdown till the fulfillment of all things. 3-2-1 we come to the end of the Church Year. This Third-Last Sunday in the Church Year has the refrain, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved,” ringing through it. It's the antiphon of the Introit. It's the last sentence of the Gospel. This Sunday has the feel of a bare knuckle boxing championship where only the last man standing wins. The Introit and our text seem to be asking, “Will it be you?” As the question, “Will you be one of those standing in the end and so be saved or not” claws as your mind, let me give you a hint where this text goes. As the Epistle says, it seeks to remove what can be shaken so that what can't be shaken may remain.
Aren't you shaking? You ought to be if you're actually hearing what this text says. It's a preaching of the Law that only goes from bad to worse. It's a panoramic picture of what the prophet Amos depicted in 1 verse. He said the end of the world would be “as when a man flees from a lion, and a bear meets him, then he goes home, leans his hand against the wall, and a snake bites him.” That's what's happening in this text. We run from one terror into another. When we think we've finally reached safety, we put a hand on a wall to steady ourselves, and our hand lands on a snake that bites us.
Don't feel that way yet? That's because you're like the disciples who are so upbeat and bubbly over the massive, magnificent temple. “Look, look, look,” they say like excited schoolboys. And what does Jesus do? He does as He often does. He nukes their joy, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Friend, the same is true for whatever manmade structure, system, building, or thing that you're so amazed at, fond of, proud of. The things of men that you can't help but feel safe in, happy in, content in are going to be thrown down, crushed, decimated as this world unravels in these last days.
But it gets worse. As the things of men unravel and collapse, people will turn to religion. Think of 9/11. All of a sudden, you could talk of God again. You could talk of prayer again. The country's leaders could stand on the steps of the Capital and sing, “God bless America” even though for decades these same leaders had been chasing God out of the classroom, the courtroom and the public square. Suddenly God was in. God is always in when the thing of men go “boom.”
“Well that at least is something positive as we slip, slide away through these end times.” Not so fast. “Many,” warns Jesus, “will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am He,” and will deceive many.” Friend, not all that people grab hold of in the name of God is God. Not everything people grab on to in the name of Jesus is Jesus.
This falling away began even before the last apostle died. Many false Christ's went out into the world St. John tells us. Many more would come in the name of Jesus but wouldn't stay with the Words of Jesus. Arius came saying he believed in God but Jesus wasn't God. Montanus came saying he had direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. No sooner had the Church steadied herself from these gale force winds of false teaching, then others began to blow. Jesus was God, but not a God who forgives sins and welcomes sinners but a harsh and cruel judge. The cross wasn't the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, but God needed to be appeased by sacrifices, by trying hard, by doing your best.
No sooner had God raised up Luther to address these errors, then others arose. The Anabaptist came saying that Baptism did nothing but believing did it all, so only believers were to be baptized. Zwingli arose saying Jesus didn't come to earth with His Body and Blood in Communion, but faith had to rise to heaven to meet Him.
All the errors of all time are the same. There is another Jesus other than the one revealed in Scripture. Even as we speak people are being pointed to a Jesus who doesn't baptize babies, a Jesus who doesn't really give His Body for Bread and His Blood for wine, a Jesus who supports not only gay marriages but gay bishops, a Jesus who though He said He was the only Way to the Father nevertheless believes there are many other ways.
And you think you can stand in the face of all this? You think you're going to remain faithful when all around you are falling? And I haven't even gotten to the political, the natural and the personal upheavals that are coming. I haven't even gotten to the wars and rumors of wars; the nations rising against nations; the earthquakes and famines. I haven't even gotten to the part where brothers betray brothers to death, fathers their children, and children their parents.
And you think you can stand in the face of all that the Law preaches here to you? I think you had better think again. The last person standing won't be any of us, and it's high time for you to admit this, confess it. Just wildfires in California make me tremble. The obstinate unbelief of basic Christian doctrines in the visible Church pushes me to despair. For crying out loud, just the personal ups and downs, challenges and problems facing my own family are too much for me to stand up under sometimes, and do you think I'll be standing as the whole cotton' picking world crumbles around me? Think again.
Wait. I hear another note sounding in this text. It's not telling me I had better be the last man standing, but it tells me of the last Man who did stand. There is a note sounding in this text that rings of Gospel not Law, of what God is doing rather than what I must do. Can you hear it? Actually, it sounded in the beginning when I told you that this text seeks to remove what can be shaken so that what can't be might remain. You and I, everything men make and do, every single created thing can be shaken and will be shaken, but the God-Man can't be. And He stands here speaking of the end of all things but pointing to something better and brighter.
Yes, He warns of false Christ's deceiving many, of wars, of earthquakes, of famines - how horrible! But what does He say about all these? “These are the beginning of birth pains.” Birth pains hurt horribly, but they signal that a birth which is a good, joyous new beginning is on the way. Do moms endure the pangs of birth by focusing on them? No, they endure by looking forward to what is coming.
Yes, Jesus stands here warning how the visible church itself will end up persecuting those with the true gospel. He tells these 4 apostles how they will be betrayed to local councils, whipped by the local churches of their day, and how these will use courts and politics to persecute them. How could it get any worse than this? But guess what? Not even this breakdown in the church will interfere with the Gospel being preached. Nothing can stop it from going out into all the nations. “But, but,” they say, but Jesus takes all their “buts” away by promising them that even in the most intense persecution the Holy Spirit will not only not abandon them but will indeed speak through them.
Ah but this is still not enough Gospel for some of you, and it shouldn't be. “The text closes with “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” “Stands firm” gives a picture of the bare knuckle boxer standing rock solid having just knocked down the last challenger. But the word literally means “remaining under.” The picture here is not that of a person seeing all things crumbling and saying, “That's no big deal.” The picture here is not that of Christian positive thinking, or Christian soldiers going onward easily through the ravages of the end times. This Greek word here rather than depicting one who triumphs over a burden by standing firm more accurately depicts the person who triumphs by remaining under a burden.
And that ought to blow you all away. Jesus doesn't say the one who will be saved is the one who was never deceived by false Christ's. He doesn't say the one who will be saved is the one who was never alarmed by wars, earthquakes and famines. He doesn't say the one who will be saved is the one who doesn't worry about what to say beforehand. Jesus doesn't say the one who will be saved is the person who stands firm without shaking with fear. No, the person who will be saved is the one who simply remains under the burden of false Christs, world upheaval, and religious persecution.
But how can I do that? Only by looking to the Man who really did stand last, Jesus Christ. This is how Hebrews 12 took this text. That chapter begins with, “Let us run with endurance (literally “while remaining under”) the race that is set before us.” Do you see the race course Jesus has laid out before us: the crumbling of manmade things, the deception in the church, the persecution of the Gospel? Run this course while remaining under, says Jesus. But how? Hebrews 12: 2 tells how, Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and the finisher of your faith, who for the joy set before Him remained under the cross.
Jesus is the Author of your faith. He brought it to you, worked it in you by your Baptism. He is the Finisher of it too. Jesus didn't just bring you to faith leaving it up to you to finish. No, He finishes it feeding you His own Body and Blood, His own Word and Sacraments to keep your faith alive. And Jesus is the real Endurer, the One who remained under, the only One who ever stood firm to the end. On the cross as He hung between us and a wrathful God bearing our sins, bearing our doubts, our weaknesses, our inability to stand firm or endure, everyone left Him. No one else endured. Not even His own mom believed in Him when He died.
He hung there to pay for their sins, yet they all turned away. “ Let's go pick up the pieces. Let's see what we can do on our own,” they said. So the apostles went and cowered in a room, and the women went to give Jesus a fit burial. We too do this too. We think Jesus leaves us to face the end of the world without Him. But we're forgetting He endures to the end. Jesus rose and came and got those men and women who were busy trying to go on without Him. He came giving them what they really needed to face the rest of their lives: the forgiveness of all their sins.
And that's what we need to face the end of the world. We don't need the manmade buildings; we don't need a church free of deceivers, or a world without wars, famines and earthquakes. We don't even need a life free from persecution and betrayal. We need a Jesus who forgives our sins. A Jesus who says, “I don't see them even though you do. I can't remember them even though you can.” All things around us, even our faith, resolve, and endurance will be shaken by the end things. But the forgiveness that comes to us in the Words, in the Water, in the Body and Blood of the last Man standing cannot be shaken. A forgiven person, a person with a free conscience and a light heart, is able to remain under a lot of other things because he or she isn't bearing the heavy load of their sins. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year (11-9-03), Mark 13:1-13