Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
Like many churches, our Lutheran church goes by the traditional church calendar, and this is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year.
The Lord and his church don’t always take the obvious way, so this morning’s gospel doesn’t refer to beginnings, but to the end of time when Christ will return. The Lord wants us to have a picture of our goal, the destination toward which he’s bringing us as we continue our pilgrimages under his grace.
When Jesus told his disciples about the end times, he did at least three things. He issued a wake-up call, he offered comfort, and also guidance for living. We’ll talk about the wake-up call first. A day is coming when the heavens and the earth will undergo radical change. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief,” Peter said in his first letter, “in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” Paul wrote that the last day will be revealed in a fire that will test the quality of each person’s work. Isaiah put it this way: “The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun and the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days, on the day the Lord binds up the fracture of his people and heals the bruise he has inflicted.” And again, the Lord said through Isaiah, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create, for behold I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness.”
A great day is coming, then. The Savior commands us to be on the watch for it, We don’t know the exact day or hour. It will come by surprise. We are to read the signs of the times and be ready.
These signs will be partly physical – eclipses, storms at sea, and falling comets. They will also have to do with behavior. A Christian who lived a long time ago said this: “When the end of the world draws near, the condition of human affairs will change and take on a more evil form. Malice and wickedness will be so widespread that the age we live in now will be looked on as a happy time. Then righteousness will become practically unknown. Blasphemy, covetousness, and impure desires will be common. Godly people will be a prey to the wicked, who will vex and grieve them. Justice will be perverted, law overthrown. People won’t have anything but what they can take hold of by their own strength. There will be no faith or confidence, no truth or government or rest. The whole world will be in arms.” If this man is right, then the time just before our Lord returns will be dark days indeed, much worse than our own time, when most people respect law and government and hope for peace.
Now, one feature of the days before the end is that most people will be so absorbed in their work and their pleasures and cares that they won’t be watchful or reading the signs of the times. Martin Luther, who believed that his own days were the end times, said that the majority of people would give themselves over to surfeiting and drunkenness and the cares of this life. “The world will continue its carousing,” he said, “eating and drinking, building and planting, and diligently seeking after earthly things, and will look upon the day of judgment as a thousand years and more away.”
God’s people, by contrast, will be alert and watchful. They will understand the signs of the times because the Lord has instructed them and they will be ready for his return.
Luther pointed out that Jesus knows that some folks will identify the signs correctly, but they will faint from terror, fearful of what is happening. Consciences will be tortured. This stands to reason, because people will have condemned the gospel, which is the only comfort for troubled consciences, and set up false doctrine in its place that teaches us to overlook sin and earn God’s favor by our works. There will be countless burdened and distressed minds that can find no rest. People will want to be pious and do good and be saved, but they’ll find torments rather than satisfaction. The more people try to do on their own, the more sin there will be and without the gospel sinners will have no refuge to flee to. Grief and perplexity will overtake them. They’ll try everything and find no help.
The situation will be different for believers. They will stand up and lift their heads, as Jesus says, because they’ll know that the kingdom of God is near. They’ll not only interpret the signs correctly but rejoice that redemption is at hand. We have come, then, to the comfort in our Savior’s description of his return. The last day for believers will be comforting and lovely. It will bring great joy and a feeling of safety, just the way the gospel brings us joy now when we hear that our sins our forgiven through our faith in Christ and that we are safe in the hands of our loving Heavenly Father. The pagan parts of the world may rejoice now and collect all kinds of good things, but on the Day of Judgment, Christians who are now afflicted by temptations and penalties will be rewarded with new and glorious lives in the presence of Christ.
We stay alert, meanwhile, and keep watch. We pray for Christ’s return, whenever we say the Lord’s prayer, not as empty repetition but with sincerity and meaning. Many folks wish the Day of Judgment wouldn’t come because they fear the consequences. Everyone has a touch of this fear, of course, because we’re all sinners. But we can cope with our fears wisely by bringing them to God and asking him to take them away so that we may delight in the expectation of Jesus’ return. In this sense, fearful people are closer to salvation than hard-hearted ones who don’t pay attention to the signs. Consuming fear, though, is a bad thing, for Christians look ahead to our Lord’s return with love. If we ever find that fear gets the best of us, we ask God for the love that drives away fear. A certain amount will remain, since our weak human natures can’t exist without the fear of death and judgment, but God’s spirit of love rules the minds and souls of his children. We ask him for the confidence and trust to wait for Jesus’ return with the love that pleases him.
Luther said that some folks hope that Jesus will postpone his return indefinitely because it will mean they’ll have to stop sinning. There are folks who delight in life as it comes, who don’t shrink from the sins that displease God, who may even wallow in sin to prove their worldliness. God’s children, on the other hand, long to be free from sin. Luther wrote that no one is so prepared for judgment day as the person who wants to be without sin. They have nothing to fear. They agree with the purpose of judgment Day, which will come to set the world free from sin. If we recognize this desire as our own, they we are among God’s children. We thank him that he has blessed us and keeps the desire for sinlessness alive in our hearts. God commands us to put aside all fear of the Day of Judgment and take care and be watchful that we truly want to have our sins taken away.
We watch for Jesus’ return because we trust that he has redeemed us from sin. Jesus builds up the fainthearted. Sin will be even more widespread at the end of the world than it is now, as we said, and so will the punishment of sin in the form of plagues, wars, and famine. Believers will need to be strengthened against evil. Jesus banishes fear and relieves bad consciences. He invites us to rest in the redemption he has won for us. He assures us now that we are ransomed, forgiven, so that if he returns this afternoon or tomorrow, we’ll have the confidence to receive him with joy and thanksgiving.
The key to watching for the Lord is to hold on to the gospel, to trust deep in our hearts that we’re pardoned, washed clean, redeemed by his blood. God will use our faith in his goodness toward us to keep us safe, no matter what may happen in the world around us.
We sometimes hear forecasts about what the future will bring and how we should think and behave. Although God forbids us from trying to predict the time of his return, the church has a lot to say to us as we watch and wait. She encourages us not to be absorbed with the world and its cares. She teaches us that we can’t save ourselves; she brings us relief from the rat race that can make us anxious. The church offers us the love of Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, God’s gracious promises, and the hope that the future will go well for us. Heaven’s message will spread and endure so that millions of hearts will rejoice when our Lord returns.
A Christian thinker I once read invites us to be hopeful about the church and the future. The horrors of the last hundred years will drive many folks to look for God, for they will make a connection between unbelief and war, turmoil, and everlasting uncertainty. They will understand the signs of the times. This writer predicts that the next hundred years or so will see a burst of evangelism unlike anything that has taken place since the 1800's. The church will move out in confidence with her message and people will respond. Souls will warm up; hearts will vibrate with the thrill of faith; lost souls will take hold of redemption in the Lord. It’s always a mistake to count the church out. God’s powerful Word revives hearts every day.
The future is in Jesus’ hands, not ours. He calls us to be on the alert, to read the signs of the times. He commands us to continue walking in faith, as St. Peter’s people are accustomed to doing, and to keep watching for his glorious return. In His name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.