“Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Mt 25:13)
We are in the final Sundays of the church year. Today is the third-last. The focus of these three last Sundays is on the end, the last day, the Day of the Lord. Just as there was a beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, there is also an end of this creation and the rising up of a new creation out of the death of the old. Just as there is a death, so there is an end to all things.
Talk of the end tends to make people a bit nervous. Edgy. Weird even. End times stuff may be great for apocalyptic action movies and pulp fiction such as the popular “Left Behind” books of a few years ago, but the reality of the end is considerably more than most care to consider. It is, and should be, a frightful prospect that rolls too easily off our tongues when we say, “He will come again to judge both the living and the dead.” Our faith tells us that we will be saved, judged innocent by the forensic verdict pronounced over us in our Baptism into the death of Jesus. More than “not guilty” but “innocent,” a verdict never heard in an earthly courtroom. Earthly courts pronounce you “not guilty,” at God’s bar of justice you are declared innocent in the righteousness of Jesus.
But just because we are and will be declared innocent by God’s grace through faith in Christ, nonetheless that Day of the Lord will be a day of wrath and mercy. Of wrath against sin and unbelief and all the ways we have of getting in the way of God’s good and gracious will to save, and of mercy, undeserved kindness toward the sinner all for Christ’s sake.
Amos makes it quite clear to those who live in a complacent smug security. Amos sees the Day of the Lord from the perspective of the Law, a day of darkness and gloom, like fleeing a lion and having a bear grab onto you, or leaning against a wall and having a serpent pop out an sink its fangs into you. It’s not a pretty picture that Amos is painting here for complacent Israel, and for us too.
And don’t think for a one second that religion is going to bail you out of this. Feasts and assemblies? God doesn’t want them. Sacrifices? He won’t look at them. Praise songs and instruments? He’s not listening. What He wants is justice gushing like a waterfall, righteousness rushing like a river. And who among us here would dare to say, “I do justice, I do righteousness?” Not on our own we don’t. We need Christ. He does justice and righteousness. He literally exudes justice and righteousness. And in HIm, we do too. But only in Him for apart from Him you can do nothing. And appart from Jesus, the Day of the Lord is only darkness and death.
The apostle Paul flips the coin over to the Gospel side, the Jesus side, in the epistle reading. The Day of the Lord is the Day of the Lord’s re-appearing. He disappeared at His ascension (He didn’t go away, just disappeared), and at the end, He reappears in a glory your eyes can’t yet bear. The dead are raised, the living are changed, and we will be with the Lord forever. That is our hope, our encouragement, the vindication of our faith. We awaken from the sleep of death to be with the Lord and with one another forever.
There was some confusion over the timing of that Day among the early believers. They had heard Jesus say, “Behold, I come quickly,” and they heard it as “I am coming soon.” Soon and quickly are the same word (taxu). Soon tells you when; quickly tells you how. Jesus appears suddenly and without warning, like lightning, like a thief in the night, like a groom kicking off the wedding party at the ridiculous hour of midnight. Some who heard it as “soon” figured “what the heck,” and quit their jobs and just hung around church all day wasting their time and mooching off of others. What’s the point in working and investing in a future that doesn’t exist, right?
You even get a hint of it with Paul. Did you catch it? He said “we.” “We who are left,” “we who are alive” when the Lord appears. Paul appears to think that he would be part of the “we,” those who are left, those who are alive. Later, in his second letter to Timothy, Paul realizes otherwise. He going to die, he’s going to finish his race and wait for the crown of victory that Christ has for Him at the medal ceremony on the Last Day.
For Paul, the Day of the Lord is not the dark and gloomy day that Amos saw, but a bright and glorious day. Loud too. A shout of command, the voice of the archangel, the trumpet call of God. It’s a day of resurrection and renewal and reunion. The dead in Christ rise from their graves. The living are renewed in the same way. And we are gathered together, reunited with Christ and with one another. The Day of the Lord is the day that Death is finally trampled under the foot of Jesus who conquered death for all of us.
So what’s our perspective, living in the end times, nearly 2000 years since Jesus said, “I come quickly.” How do we live as end-times people? The parable of the wedding gives us some insight. “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” OK, you’re going to have to identify with bridesmaids here, but just bear with it. Don’t think about frilly dresses and uncomfortable shoes. Just focus on oil lamps. Little clay pots with a wick and a few ounces of oil that you carried like a candle. That was their job. To show up a the wedding with oil lamps. Five brought extra oil; five didn’t. Five would not let anything get in the way from being in the wedding; the other five, well quite honestly, they had better things to do. And who wants to look so silly carrying around some clunky bottle of oil anyway?
The foolish figured they knew the time. They figured a few ounces was enough. They figured they knew the groom and his ways. The figured wrong, and so they missed the party. The wise, on the other hand, were over-prepared, like a bunch of boy scouts. Their whole focus, the center of their lives, were those oil lamps and having enough oil to be ready at any moment, any time.
What no one figured was that the groom would be late. What no one figured was that everyone would fall asleep. What no one figured was the the groom was a little on the crazy side and decided to start his wedding at midnight. (By the way, ladies, these were the days when the guys called the shots at their wedding. You’ve got to wonder what would be different about weddings today if that were case, don’t you?)
Wise and foolish in the Bible are ways of saying “believing” and ‘unbelieving.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” It is foolish to think you have the time to procrastinate the things of salvation. I know. I’m a huge procrastinator. I always figure I have the time, until something unexpected comes up, and then my foolishness is obvious. Yes, it looks silly to the world, and maybe even seems silly to us, going to church, singing to a God-man we can’t see. I understand why the atheists laugh at these things. It’s easy to think that our little bit of religion that we picked up in Sunday School will carry us through that great and terrible Day of the Lord. It’s also foolish.
It isn’t until the end that the folly of the foolish is revealed for what it is. Not a day sooner. Until then, the foolish appear wise, cool, stylish. They appear so in control, so reasonable, so rational. Until the noise begins at midnight, until they wake up in the darkness and realize they have no oil, and there are no merchants, and there is no sharing, and the door is slammed and locked, and no amount of pounding and pleading is going to open it. They had a place at the wedding party. Christ died for all without exception. They had a seat at the table with their name on it. And in their foolish figuring, they lost out, they are unrecognized. They hear through an eternally shut door, “I don’t know you.” He invited them, but now He does not know them.
Only at the end, on that Day that ends all days, will the wisdom of your faith be vindicated, and the foolishness of unbelief be revealed.
How do we live as end-times people? Watchful, sober, alert. Tending to the work of our vocations, but always watchful. Hearing the Word, receiving the Body and the Blood, praying, praising, giving thanks. Focused, with Jesus in the cross-hairs of our vision. He appears suddenly, quickly, without warning. Not like the first time when He had John the Baptizer prepare the way. There’s no need for that. The Church has been preparing the way for 2000 years, baptizing and teaching. He appears like a groom at midnight, and you baptized into Him, trusting in Him, will rise to greet Him, with lamps full of oil and wicks trimmed and ready to go. Be watchful, be sober, be ready. You never know when the party begins.
In the name of Jesus,