In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the barrier put up by the Communist forces of the Soviet Union and East Germany to separate and isolate West Berlin from East Berlin and the rest of Germany. Oh, it wasn’t just a wall, either. There was also barbed wire, and there were machine gun emplacements and trenches. That wall represented far more than the division of one city; it represented the division of the world into two camps: free nations, led by the United States, and enslaved nations, under the Soviet Union. For those who had fled the Communist occupation of their homelands, including my father’s family [when he was six years old], the Berlin Wall symbolized the captivity of their native land. It was a concrete version of the otherwise abstract Iron Curtain, the dividing line that separated the Communist-dominated nations from the free world. For my grandparents, my father, and many others, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant hope for freedom. [I bought a piece from the Berlin Wall as a gift for my Grandma Peniķis. She was delighted to get it. I had bought it at Target. The triumph of free markets over the slavery of communism!] For a world that was caught in the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant hope for peace. Some even went so far as to declare “The End of History.” I am astounded at how many people saw these developments as something troubling, frightening, even bad and undesirable.
As we can see, there has been plenty of history in those thirty years since, and a lot of it has been filled with war, violence, terrorism, and recently a new embrace of communism’s sister, socialism. We have seen and heard many claims of “the end of history” or “the end of the world” through the years. Some have come from self-proclaimed “prophets” who say that they’re getting their predictions from the Bible; but, their methods of interpretation leave a great deal to be desired. Some of these “prophets” gain wide attention, and when their predictions fail, as they always do, folks have a good laugh over the silliness, and then get on with their lives. Such prophets, though, should be marked as false prophets who give a black eye to the true Christian Faith. The LORD warned Israel, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die” (Dt 18:20), and as Jesus warned the disciples, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt 7:15). We don’t put false prophets to death by stoning anymore; but, we are to mark them as causing division, avoid them, warn against them, and have nothing to do with them.
Such men had shown up in the Christian churches at Thessalonica in northern Greece. They were declaring that “the Day of the Lord” had already come. This put some of the Thessalonian believers in a panic. They were wondering if they had somehow missed the Day of the Lord, the Coming in glory and power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the men who declared this were claiming the Apostle Paul as their source and authority for their declaration! Paul cautions the Thessalonians, “We ask you … not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit,” someone claiming to have a spirit of prophecy, “or a spoken word,” a message purported to be from Paul, “or a letter seeming to be from us,” which would in fact be a forgery. “He gives a test by which to know his genuine letters” (JFB Commentary).
As I was reading some commentary on our text, I came across one example that really muddies the waters on this whole matter. It’s from a professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. He says of this chapter, and probably the whole epistle of 2 Thesssalonians, “The author, probably someone writing in Paul’s name, rather than Paul himself, needs to address a problem” [emphasis added]. What does that mean? It’s saying that this epistle, which warns against accepting forged epistles, is itself a forged epistle! Such commentary is of little help, and only serves further to cloud already confused minds.
Paul had to address a problem of false teachers spreading their falsehoods in his name, claiming that they were speaking under his auspices and with his authority. Jesus warned that there would be many such false prophets, pointing people in every direction to find Him, and there would be many false christs, claiming, “I am! I am!” In today’s Gospel, Jesus has to deal with a group of priests, Sadducees, who want to ask Him a question about the resurrection of the dead. That’s fine, except the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. Unlike the Pharisees, they accepted only the written Torah, the Books of Moses, as authoritative, and rejected the oral tradition of the Law. They set up a “brain teaser” for Jesus [seven brothers marrying one wife as each man in turn dies, and then the woman dies]. How will He explain this and still hold to the resurrection of the dead? While they may seem serious in their question, it’s a rather silly one, which Jesus quickly answers, “There is no marrying or giving in marriage in the resurrection.” There is only one marriage in the resurrection, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb and His Bride, Christ and the Church. As to their unbelief about the resurrection, Jesus answers from the very Books of Moses that the Sadducees agreed are the true Word of God. From Exodus, in the account of the burning bush, “he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ ” (Lk 20:37; Ex 3:6). “So He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the faithful saints who have gone before, are alive, awaiting the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection, the Day of Judgment, the Last Day, when all things will be brought to consummation.
There are mysteries, Paul says. There are mysteries of sin and the devil, “the mystery of lawlessness,” and they may seem fearsome, terrifying. The “man of lawlessness” will come looking like a version of Christ, yet he is an impostor. While he is the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction, exalting himself, the true Savior, Jesus Christ, is “the Lord our Righteousness,” the Lamb of our salvation, coming in lowliness and humility. This “man of lawlessness” would seek to assume a divine throne, a seat of power—but the true throne of our God and Savior, the throne from which He reigned in grace and mercy for our sakes, for our salvation, is the Cross, where He seems bereft of power. Here at His altar-table, we receive His gifts given for the forgiveness of sins, His body and blood, the very same given and shed on the Cross, put into your mouth to feed you body and soul. There is a Mystery, a Mystery of God, and of godliness, the Mystery of the blessed Sacrament!
Why does God permit Satan to empower this “man of lawlessness” with “all power and false signs and wonders”? Could Christians even be deceived by some of these false signs and wonders? Such strong delusions do seem to be on the rise in our day. One of these I’ve mentioned before is the “alien encounter” and “alien abduction” phenomenon. Researchers have found that these “aliens” are driven away by the name of Jesus. They’re not aliens, they’re demons. Somewhat related is the belief that this world was visited by “ancient astronauts” in the distant past. The man who started all of this, Erich von Däniken, says, “This is not a religion!” I’ve heard of people who watch “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel, and they believe every word of it as gospel truth. Do you think the History Channel would broadcast a series explaining the Christian Faith as true and as real history? Don’t bank on it. The reason God permits this, even sending them a strong delusion, Paul says, is “so that they may believe the Lie, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the Truth but were well pleased with unrighteousness” (2 Thess 2:11–12). It will make clear on the Day of Judgment the distinction between the righteous, those who hold fast to the Truth of Christ, and the unrighteous, those who are willing to believe anything but Christ.
The mystery of lawlessness and sin is great; but the Mysteries of God are greater. And while sin will be brought to an end, as will the man of lawlessness and Satan himself, the Mysteries of God are eternal. In eternity, we will no longer need the Mystery of the Supper of Christ’s body and blood; but, the benefits of this eating and drinking are eternal. Christ Jesus is and ever shall be true God and true Man, as the Church has ever confessed and declared the Mystery of the Incarnation. The Mystery of the Trinity of course is from eternity to eternity, before time was and beyond the end of time. Our God always has been, is, and ever shall be one God in three persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Can we explain how these are so? No; that’s what makes them mysteries. Yet the Truth of God they are. If many things still seem difficult to understand, says Martin Luther, “this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want of understanding,” because of darkness of hearts, caused by sin.
“Sometimes it stings, like a slap in the face.” That’s how Araminta Tubman—known best as Harriet—describes hearing the voice of God in the new Focus Features’ movie “Harriet.”
Thus begins a film critique from Christian apologist John Stonestreet.
The film follows Tubman, the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor, who, after escaping to freedom herself, returns again and again, in order to bring other slaves to freedom … this heroine is famous not for pop-star talent or mass appeal, but because of what she did for so many others.
Nor did she succeed by merely “overcoming great odds” or “relying on her own inner strength.” As the film makes quite clear, Tubman’s reliance on God gave her great strength and helped her overcome the greatest of odds.
Later in the film, Tubman is confused and desperate when her sister refuses to be rescued. She prays for relief, but it doesn’t always come. God speaks to her, sometimes with comfort and sometimes “like a slap.” While some critics think this depiction of the Christian God looks too much like mysticism, [Stonestreet suggests that] the film portrays her relationship with God in a way that is nuanced, complicated, and realistic.
Tubman doesn’t deliver pithy, vengeful one-liners, even when confronting her former slave-keeper. She’s not some heroine who’s unusually strong or powerful. She simply had the courage to obey God—a God who sometimes confused her. There’s not a lot [that’s] more inspiring than that.
Her story reminds us that self-sacrifice, even if impractical, has great value. Every return trip she made to the South was, in any practical sense, a terrible idea. She was likely to fail.
But thank God that after tasting freedom in Philadelphia, she didn’t count her own comfort as something to be grasped. She had suffered so greatly that her freedom, once she found it, had to be shared. All followers of Christ should feel that same urgency when we remember what the Cross has done for us.
Hollywood is an unlikely place to find a representation of a good, complicated God. But then again, Tubman was an unlikely hero. Thank God He accomplishes the unlikely through the unlikely.
Including, by His grace, the unlikely likes of you and me.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.