the twenty-third sunday after pentecost …

Malachi 4. 1-2a
Always look for Christ and Christ crucified!

Biblical vector illustration series. Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross, Jesus is taken down from the cross, Mother Mary mourning the death of Jesus.

Not Necessarily the News! Some of you might remember the show. It was a comedy series, aired on HBO, back in the ‘80s. It was satire and it was sarcasm! And I loved it! It targeted, mainly, all things political. But now and again, religion came into the crosshairs. And there was one skit, in particular. A a parody on the Rambo movies popular at the time.

It opened with a closeup. Of a man who looked a lot like Sylvester Stallone. Black hair, long, wavy. Torn camo cloth tied around his head. Eyes closed. Head bowed to one side. The music in the background was tense but subdued.

The narrator begins. “The first time … He turned the other cheek … Went the extra mile …. Did unto others …” As the camera pulls back, you realize it’s the man is hanging on a cross. No shirt. Military pants. Combat boots. The music swells. The voice becomes dramatic, determined.

“But now … he’s back! And this time, he’s [expletive deleted]!” The man opens his eyes! He pulls his arms from the cross and jumps down. As soon as his feet hit the ground, someone, from off camera, tosses him an assault rifle. He catches it. Crouches. Ready for anything. “Jesus Christ, 2,” the voice announces, “The second coming!’ Now at a theater near you!” Cue laugh track. Fade to black. Go to commercial. Everyone moves on.

Everyone, that is, except the church. We just sit there. Staring at the screen. Trying to figure out what was so funny. Because that spoof is what most of us believe – really, truly believe – about Jesus. While the audience laughs, we’re saying, “Yes, yes, it’s going to come about just like this!” Jesus Christ, 2; The Second Coming! That’s what’s become the important thing, the essential thing, about believing. It’s what we depend on. What we stake our life – stake our lives – on! Especially here in America! Especially, especially, here in West Texas! Sure, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin. And certainly, he suffered and was crucified and died and was buried. But we live for the sequel, not the original! Rising! Ascending! Sitting at the right hand! But maybe most of all, coming to judge!

Love’s all well and good. But it’s unrealistic. It’s not practical. Love doesn’t have any … any teeth to it. In the end, it doesn’t change anything. Love doesn’t motivate. Love doesn’t inspire. But fire! Fire and brimstone! That’s what we need to take god seriously! Anything less isn’t fair. Anything less isn’t right. So, here in America, there’s no heaven, without a hell! No reward, without punishment! No blessed, without the cursed.

So, when we stumble over a passage like the one, this morning, well … somewhere deep inside, we smile. Our hearts pound. Our blood boils. And when every single word has been uttered, we whisper out loud, “Thanks! Thanks be to god!”

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven,
when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble;
the day that comes shall burn them up,
so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

We pretend that we’re shocked. Stunned. But we know this is the way it’s supposed to end. This is most certainly true! Or is it …

Think about it. When was the last time we sang a song even remotely like this passage? Or when was the last time we offered a prayer that all evildoers would, one day, be turned to ash? We might do it … as people. But not as church! Not as people-of-god! We have to admit that wrath and retribution are a part – a big part – of the american church. Wrath and retribution. Fire and brimstone. Hell and damnation. Turn or burn is the message. It’s all around us. On radio, television. In movies and books. On billboards. Bumperstickers. You’ve seen it! Heard it! “If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?” “Eternity is hell without Jesus”

Truth is, that’s not gospel! Not even close! That’s why you’ve never heard it here. It’s not because we’re so liberal. Not because pastors like me are afraid to tell it like it is! Afraid to ruffle feathers! Afraid to upset, irritate, annoy! To call a spade a spade! To shoot from the hip!

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven,
when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble;
the day that comes shall burn them up,
so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

The reason it’s not in our songs … or our prayers … or our sermons … or our services … is because it’s not us! It’s not who we are! It’s not who our god is! It’s not here because we don’t believe in it! We don’t trust it! Condemnation isn’t redemption! Destruction? Destruction isn’t forgiveness! And pointing fingers and shaking fists and shouting at the top of our voices doesn’t change a thing. Only one thing does that … grace! Charity! Love! And the only one who does that is Jesus!

“There’s no condemnation for those in Christ,” Paul tells us! No being condemned! No condemning! There’s only grace and mercy! Only mercy and grace! There’s only Jesus! There’s only the cross! We’re not here to scare anyone! We’re not here to threaten or intimidate or bully! As if we can force them to become something different. Something other. As if all our nagging and all our nitpicking can turn them into the people god wants them to be. It doesn’t work that way. It never has.

We’re here, simply, to treat others just like Jesus treated us! To treat others just like Jesus treats us! With reverence! With respect! We’re here to forgive … as we’ve been forgiven! To love … as we’ve been loved! To turn the other! To go the extra! To do unto! Just like Jesus! To pick up our cross – their cross – and follow! And when the time comes for us to come down from the cross, we do it with the same love and the same forgiveness that put us up there to begin with!

My friends, please don’t be deceived! Please, don’t be misled! Good Friday has no sequel! There is only Christ! Christ and Christ crucified! There’s never been anything more! And there, certainly, will never been anything less!

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Midland Lutheran Church