Firm to the End
Of all the scary things in this text, the most frightening is the last sentence, "He who stands firm to the end will be saved." It doesn't say, "He who stands firm most of the time will be saved." Or, "He who tries his best to stand firm to the end will be saved." Or, "He who has a good reason for not standing firm to the end will be saved." Nope, our Lord says, "He who stands firm to the end will be saved."
To what end? You think it's the end of the world. And since you assume that's a long way off, you conclude you won't be around. Standing firm till the world's end doesn't apply to you. Wrong. Earlier when Jesus says, "The end is still to come," that does refer to the end of the world, but the end referred to here is your end, your death. So this applies to us all whether we die tonight, next year, or 2 decades from now. If you don't stand firm right up till the hour, the minute, the second your soul departs, you can't be saved.
Now that we know what end we're talking about what does our Lord mean when He says "stand firm?" This is the Greek word for "endure." He who endures to the end will be saved. 7 Greek words are translated "endure" each with its own flavor. The flavor of this word is to endure by "remaining under." Isn't that a blow! I mean "standing firm" is Bob Seeger's gritty "Like a Rock." "Standing firm" is a matter of determination, resolution, and discipline. "Remaining under" sounds weak, passive, and dreary. A sure way to reach your end with a whimper not a bang.
But only the ones who end "remaining under" will be saved. That's what Jesus says, and if that doesn't put the holy fear of God into you nothing will because what chance do people like you have of doing that? Didn't you hear what Jesus says in this text about your future? Let me highlight it for you. Jesus says, "Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in My nameand will deceive many." What chance do you have of not being one of the many? What chance do you have of remaining under the barrage of false teachers without being deceived by a false faith? Right now could you even give the right answers to simple catechism questions like, "What is the Lord's Supper?" "What is the difference between Law and Gospel?" "Why is the doctrine of justification the most important doctrine of the Christian religion?" Ignorance isn't bliss; it's death and not the first death, the second.
Jesus doesn't just warn of false teachers; He tells of persecution by Church and State. He warns of being betrayed to a congregation and them whipping you. I haven't been whipped since I was young. I didn't do so good then; I doubt I'll do any better now. Jesus goes on to warn of being arrested by the government and brought to trail. Do you think you'll endure till the end of that? If right now you clip your words, modulate your tone, or don't speak at all before friends, family, others who might be offended by the truth, what chance do you have of speaking in the end?
Speaking of family and friends, Jesus says, "Brother will [not might] betray brother to death and a father his child. Children will [not might] rebel against their parents and have them put to death." Do you think you can remain under the pain, the sorrow, the heartache of family rejecting you because of the faith? Well, if you can't, won't, or don't, you won't be saved.
That's what Jesus says, doesn't He? And if that's not bad enough, Jesus goes on to say, "All men will [not might] hate you because of Me." It just sickens me that in my inmost being, at the core of my personality is a little boy always whining, "I just want to be liked. I just want to be accepted." And the little brat isn't whining about God liking or accepting him. He could care less about God. He only cares about being liked and accepted by people, by fallen, sinful, lost people. And that little boy will never stand firm to the end because he never stands firm, remains under, or endures any hardship, difficulty, or pain.
Then who on earth can be saved? Do you remember when the disciples asked Jesus that question? It was when Jesus blew up their assumption that rich people have got to go to heaven. He had said, "It's easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved." And they had replied, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus answered, With man it is impossible, but not with God."
The correct response to Jesus saying, "He who stands firm to the end will be saved" is not, "Okay, I'll get right on that," or, "That's all I need to know." No, the correct response is, "Then who can be saved?" Now you're able to hear the truly Good News. What is impossible for you is not for God.
The only ones who remain under till the end are those who sins are forgiven. It's only in, by, and with forgiveness that anyone stands firm till the end. That's why we prayed the ancient Collect which asks God to absolve us from the bond of our sins that we have brought upon ourselves that we may be delivered from them. It's only by God sending our sins away from us for the sake of Jesus, that we can be saved. It's only by God not tallying up all the instances where we haven't stood firm, remained under, or endured that we'll make it to the end of our life still believing.
Maybe if I paraphrase other words of Jesus you'll get the full comfort of this. Those who always stand firm need no forgiveness. Jesus didn't come into the world to save those who always remain under affliction, temptation, and rejection, but those who can't. None of the disciples stood firm till the end of Jesus' life, but He forgave them, and so they endured until their end in the faith that they were forgiven.
Not enough certainty yet, is there? When your sins or sinfulness mount higher, heavier, or stinker than the forgiveness of sins Christ won for you, focus on grace. Did you pay attention to the Introit we chanted from Psalm 85? "You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all [not some, not most, but all] their sins. You set aside all [not some, not most but all] Your wrath and turned from Your fierce anger."
Your standing firm, your enduring, your remaining under doesn't cause God to do any of this. God does this for the sake of Christ. He lived a holy life not deceived by false teachers, endured the persecution of church and state, stood firm under the rejection of family, of friends, of all. No one could say that Jesus didn't do all of this, and He did it for you. But there's more. Jesus didn't die a peaceful death. He died humiliated, tortured, and damned. He died as that whinny little boy in my heart of hearts ought to die. He died forsaken by God and rejected by all.
God did all of this to His only beloved Son because He wanted to be gracious to you. He didn't do it because that whinny little boy in me asked Him to. He didn't do it because that whinny little boy deserved it. He didn't do it because that whinny little boy tried his best to stand firm, to endure, to remain under. God did it totally out of grace. That means without any merit or worthiness in me; only out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy. Rather than looking at you like you look at the whinny, bratty little boy or girl in your heart of hearts, God looks on you in pity, in mercy, with more grace than you have sins, weaknesses, or whines.
Forgiveness is great; grace is wonderful, but we're looking at our end, our death, in the face of a devil, a world, and a flesh that pull us relentlessly toward damnation. These unholy 3 don't care if you're successful, well-liked, happy, or healthy. They only want you to fall before your end. They just don't want you to stand firm. They want you rise up and say, "I'll not remain under this pain, this shame, this fear, this rejection," that comes upon me because of Jesus!" It's 3 against one. With those odds forgiveness and grace (though they are) don't seem enough.
So Jesus gives us even more comfort, more strength, and an even firmer place to stand in the Old Testament lesson. Daniel is shown a time of distress like the distress we will know on our deathbed when the devil, the world and our sinful flesh jump up and down on our chest. It's a time of distress that hasn't happened to us before. It's different when it's not your mom, dad, loved one or friend but you lying there. You're faced with your wimpy stands; your failures to speak. When you run to forgiveness Satan hisses, "Is it enough?" You bolt to grace, to what God freely did to save you for Christ's sake. You reach for it, but death's hot breath blows it away.
In the face of such distress that you won't know till death befalls you, where does our Lord point us? Not to us, not in us, but to Him. Those who are saved in such great distress are "everyone whose names are found written in the book." Whose names are there? Where can you go to read those names? To the cross, to the open wounds of Jesus dripping, pouring, splashing into those Communion cups and into that Baptismal font. There's your name, your name, and yours clear as day. Written not in big, black letters, but in big, red ones. You will be delivered from sin, from death and from the devil when your end comes because long before the world existed, God wrote your name in His book for Jesus' sake. The proof of this is in the fact that you've been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus in Baptism and you drink His blood in Communion.
Jesus doesn't write His book as history goes along. No, before He created the world He wrote His book. Long before you sinned, before He died for those sins, before He forgave you those sins, or before you stood firm or failed to stand firm, He wrote His book. Jesus can't be wrong in what He has written. Not now; not ever. In the end, you will be delivered from your time of grave distress to Jesus in heaven. His book says so. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year (20061112); Mark 13: 1-13