What I say to you, I say to all: Watch! (Mark 13:24-37)
We have come to the end of the church year. The final chapter of history, the last movement of the symphony, the last Sunday that wraps everything up at the close of the age when Christ will appear as the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great and terrifying power and glory and send out his angels to gather his elect from the four compass points of the earth. Or as we summarize it in the creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
The question for the day is this: How do we live as end-times people? How do we live in the realization that the Day of the Lord is coming, it is nearer now than it was yesterday. How do we live, as God’s baptized believers, knowing that Christ might appear at any moment, that the cosmic order as we know it may give way without warning, that the sun, moon, and stars would fall and the very heavens be shaken?
We who live in earthquake country have a good illustration of this end-times Day of the Lord stuff. We know that an earthquake is possible at any moment including 10 seconds from now. It will come without warning, suddenly, at any time of day or night. Unlike tornados or hurricanes or storms, an earthquake has no warning sign. You don’t see it coming. And so the only thing you can do is be prepared. You know one is coming, and perhaps a big one or even The Big One, but you don’t know when. And so the only thing you can reasonably do is be prepared. Have an emergency plan. Maybe have some water and provisions packed away just in case. And always be aware that an earthquake can happen at any moment.
So it is with the visible appearing of Christ in glory. He comes suddenly, like a flash of lightning that streaks across the sky from the east to the west. He comes without warning, like a thief in the night. He comes at the least likely of hours, like a groom at midnight. He comes when the world sleeps in complacency, drunkenness, distraction, and unbelief. Jesus’ word for the end is an urgent word: Keep awake. Watch.
No one knows the day or the hour. That’s the reality of the end-times. Jesus leaves the last big question unanswered. Imagine parents going out for the evening and telling their kids, “we’ll be right back.”
“So when exactly are you coming back?”
“Who know? Could be anytime at all. But when we do come back it will be suddenly and without warning.”
“Could you at least give us a ballpark estimate?”
“No, that wouldn’t be good for you.”
“Maybe nine o’clock? Midnight? Something like that?”
“No, but we’ll be back. You can count on it. Why do you want to know, anyway?”
Why do we want to know? Why do we insist on foolish figuring when the Lord has told us it’s not for us to know the day or the hour? Why do we fixate on years like 1000 and 2000 and now 2012 and the Mayan calendar? One part of it, I think, is fascination with the unknown and a lurking sense that things seem to be tumbling to some sort of end point. Another part, though, is our desire to domesticate God, to put Him into a convenient box the way we do our holiday seasons, to schedule Him in on our busy calendars to make sure we’re ready when He shows up so we can have our houses swept clean and our lives in order.
Jesus has set His church, you and me, on high end-times alert with the single word “Watch. Keep awake.” While the rest of the world is spiritually asleep to the point of being comatose, Jesus would have His believers alert and ready, like the doorkeeper of the house who watches for the master of the house to return. He doesn’t know when, so he’s always alert, always ready, always watching. Jesus made it quite clear to His disciples. The end-times is not a time for couch potato Christianity, of comatose complacency, of sitting idly being entertained. He said, “Be careful, take heed, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation, with drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that Day will spring on you unexpectedly like a trap.”
The problem is that the call to end-times alertness after 2000 years begins to sound like the government’s perpetual “orange alert” for terrorist activity. It just doesn’t mean anything anymore. The press of our work and social calendars crowd out the significance of any end of the church year, end of the age, end of all things considerations. And while we may have a lurking notion that the world will end one day, it also have this false confidence that it is not likely to end today, tomorrow, or the next day. And that would be as foolish as those bridesmaids who thought that a little oil was enough and never expected the groom to show up at the unlikely hour of midnight.
The first Christians believed that they would live to see the visible return of Jesus. They lived in that hope and expectation. They went about their lives and business as usual, but always with one eye toward the heavens, watching, waiting, hoping for the dawn of their salvation. Jesus had said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” He was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem; many thought He was referring to the end of all things. In a sense they were correct: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans was a sign of the end, a little foretaste. But it was only a sign. The main event is yet to come. “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” It’s the one piece of unfinished business.
Now to those who take such things seriously, there is a sense of dread and panic. Those apocalyptic movies about the end of the world are not “they lived happily ever after” movies. The natural reaction is one of dread and terror anticipating great destruction. And that’s certainly true, but it’s not the whole truth. When Jesus speaks of the end, he uses the sign of the fig tree – not as it’s shedding it’s leave and going dormant into the dead of winter, but as the sap is rising and the leaves are budding to anticipate the coming of summer. In other words, Jesus turns all the destruction of the end into signs of life. St. Paul calls them the “birth pangs,” the labor contractions of the new creation that has come with the coming of Christ. Yes, labor and childbirth is painful (or some I’m told). Yet the outcome is so happy and joyous and wonderful that the pain is forgotten, or the memory of it is at least diminished or we would all be only children.
The Day of Jesus’ coming is a day of judgment, yes. But judgment cuts two ways. One can be judged guilty and sentenced to punishment; one can also be judged innocent and set free. In a very real sense, you were already judged on Jesus’ judgment Day, the day He came not to judge but to be judged, when He took your place on a cross, took your sin into His sinless life, embraced your death in His death, was condemned with the condemnation you deserve. That Good Friday when the Son of God died for the sins of the world was a Day of the Lord. And we know where that Day led – to resurrection, to life, to glory at the right hand of God.
That judgment was pronounced over your own head in your Baptism, where you were united with Jesus in His death, His life, His glory. You were clothed with Christ. You were put “into Christ,” made a new creation. “The old has gone, the new has come.” Many Christians, especially those who don’t understand the power and work of Baptism, miss this point. In Christ you are already glorified. We are, in Christ, already in the new creation. What we are waiting for is to take possession of this ourselves, in our own bodies raised or changed to fit life in a new creation. And so the end of all things old means the beginning all things new. “I am making all things new,” Jesus says. A new heavens, a new earth, a new you.
So how then shall we live, in view of the end? Luther supposedly said that if he knew the world were going to end tomorrow, he would plant an apple tree today. Or something like that. Luther probably didn’t say that, but the idea is sound. We would say wash the car, mow the lawn, do what we are given to do. But always, always, always with one eye toward the heavens from whence comes our salvation.
In today’s epistle, Jude would exhort us to build ourselves up in our most holy faith. That doesn’t mean dwelling on our insides and our believing, but being immersed in what we believe. Not like some procrastinating students cramming for an exam (there were be no exams on the last Day), but more like lovers dwelling over their words to each other or learning about something that fascinates us and captivates our hearts and minds. Christ is coming soon! And in the end it’s all about Christ, who is the beginning and the end. What greater topic is there than Christ and His Word as we prepare to meet Him face to face?
With the Word comes prayer. “Pray in the Holy Spirit.” The end-times are a time for prayer, for holy conversation with the One who is coming. To pray “in the Spirit” does not mean to pray incoherently or pray without understanding, but to pray recognizing that we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs and groans beyond words. He delivers God’s Word to our ears, and our words to the Father’s ears.
“Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” Notice it is “mercy” for which we are waiting and life. To keep in the love of God is to be on the receiving end of His love toward us – hearing His Word, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, taking in the words of forgiveness and life. And as we receive the tokens of His love for us now, we are being prepared to be the objects of His love when He appears in glory.
Lastly, Jude says, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” He turns us to one another. Doubt and faith always run together because we believe what we do not now see. The church is a body; there is safety in numbers. The isolated believer is the vulnerable one. We need each other, sometimes to stick out a rescuing hand to pull another from the fire of unbelief. That hand may leave a temporary bruise, but if someone were about to be run over by a truck, you wouldn’t worry about a black and blue mark, would you? We are called to watch out for each other, care for each other, support and even rescue one another, because we don’t want anyone to miss the glory that is coming.
There is a final comfort here, on this Last Sunday of the year. Jesus is the One who keeps us from stumbling and presents us blameless at the end. Not us. Not our religious efforts, our works, our piety, or anything. Jesus keeps us blameless in the robe of His righteousness; Jesus keeps us from stumbling by His sure feet that have trampled sin, death, and devil. He is your beginning, your end, your Alpha, your Omega, your life and your salvation. Trust Him to the end, and you will see with resurrection eyes what you now believe.
“Not to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”
In the name of Jesus,