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[Jesus said:] “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (Mark 13:34-35).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The last Sundays of the Church Year bring eschatology, the study of the last things, into focus with the lectionary’s emphasis on death, the final judgment, and the promise of the new heaven and the new earth. These Sundays bring us to the conclusion of the Nicene Creed, “And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” We have said those words so often, but what do they mean?
Truth be told, we are often more concerned about the judgment that comes from other human beings. We fret about how others will evaluate us. Sometimes it has to do with lesser things like how we dress or the way that our lawn looks. Sometimes it is wondering whether so-and-so will like or accept us. Other times it might be more profound worries like an employee who is anxious over an annual performance review or a student taking an entrance exam that may determine which academic paths are opened or closed to him.
The stresses and strains of this life seem enough to keep us preoccupied with the here and now. The judgment which will come at the end seems distant and abstract, far removed from all the things that call the worth of our lives into question right now. So, we may ask the question not with skepticism, but with honesty, what does the return of the Lord Jesus in judgment mean for me now in the face of all the real-life verdicts that I have to face?
The answer to that question is found in God’s Word appointed to be read in the churches on these last Sundays of the Church Year. These are the Sundays of the end times. They point us to the sober reality that life will not always go on as usual. These gray and increasingly winter-like days of November bear all the signs of death. The dazzling red and gold leaves of autumn give way to brown and barren branches. So also in the Church Year these November Sundays have the chill of death. The year hastens to a close and with it the reminder that our lives hasten on as well. The Scripture readings appointed for these Sundays, therefore, are a wakeup call, a reminder to be always ready for the Master’s return.
This is especially true of the readings today from Mark 13. Jesus says learn from the fig tree. When it begins to blossom, you know that summer is at hand. Wake up to the reality that the Son of Man is at the gate.
Jesus speaks of cosmic signs. The sun will be darkened and the moon will not share its beams. Stars tumble from the skies and the heavenly powers are shaken when the Son of Man comes on the clouds with power and great glory. He dispatches His holy angels to gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown and so they reap the elect from north and south, from east and west. None that belong to Jesus will be lost. That great cloud of witnesses will be complete; they will forever be with Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith. He endured the cross, triumphed over death by dying, and now He is seated at the Father’s right hand. It is this Jesus who is near the gate, standing at the door.
Of course, Jesus spoke these words just after He had entered through the gate on Palm Sunday. He was in Jerusalem moving ever closer to Calvary where sun and moon would be darkened (at least for a few hours), and the powers of heaven shaken as the sinless Son of God endures all that our sin deserved—God’s wrath and death itself. You see Judgment Day really does begin on Good Friday, for it is there that Jesus is judged with our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous!
Indeed, the generation that Jesus spoke to would not pass away until these things had taken place. The time of God’s visitation was upon them. They would see the Son of Man scorned and blasphemed. They would see Him handed over to wicked men, sentenced and spit upon, beaten and bloody. They would see Him suffering and dying. They would hear Him cry out in His dying breath, “It is finished.” God is finished with sin in Jesus, for Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world in His own body pinned to a Roman cross. With His blood, He drains away the pollutant of your unbelief.
It is this Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead. The last days are not “out there” in the future somewhere. You are in them now. The Church has been living in the last days ever since Good Friday. To live in the last days is to live on the threshold between time and eternity.
How close we are, we do not know. Life can be and is deceptive. It is easy to think that life just meanders on, that the comfortable routines we have established for ourselves will continue uninterrupted. We can so easily be lulled into the fleshly security of the man in Jesus’ parable who surveyed his overflowing barns and concluded that his soul could be at rest for he had enough to supply his needs for years to come. Jesus calls this man a fool, for the abundance of his riches blinded him to the fact that his soul would be required of him that very night.
Jesus shows us how the things by which we evaluate our lives are transient and deceptive. Wealth and health are not permanent. There is a Judge who is standing at the door. He is not removed in some far distant realm of the future. He is near. One day—a day that is hidden from His creation—He will come on clouds and every eye will see Him and every tongue confess either in eternal joy or perpetual shame, that He is Lord. Faith is not preoccupied with futile attempts to calculate when. Faith lives by the promises that Jesus makes right now. “Heaven and earth,” Jesus says, “will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”
For your faith’s sake, Jesus warns you of things to come, even things here now, because you will be tempted to drift away from the faith, to fall away in persecution, to doubt God’s love when suffering, and to doubt that He will return. Jesus doesn’t say when He will return. He just promises that He will and that you must be ready. It is not the duty of the master to tell his servants exactly when he will return, but it is the duty of the doorkeeper to be watching. The master may return at any hour. The doorkeeper must always be ready for the master’s return.
Jesus calls you to a lifetime of watching and remaining faithful in your holy vocation. Each of us is given the authority to work until His return. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, an heir of the kingdom of God, you are part of the royal priesthood, living as Gospel people in your ordinary vocations. Your greatest work is faith, which is really a work of God, done through His Word. That highlights the importance of remaining in the Word of God. Despite the temptations of false teachers, tribulations because of faith, or suffering in a sinful, futile world, the Church does not receive or declare the Word in vain. Christ’s authority assures us that His words remain forever.
Be ready for the Master’s return. You must not be found asleep. Therefore, repent. If desire or sophistry turned you to accept false as true, return to the pure Word. If you are too fearful to bear a cross, confess your faintheartedness. If troubles seem greater than Christ’s sufficiency, confess your unbelief. And if urgency to hear Christ’s Word and receive His very body and blood are forgotten after the Saturday late movie, or in anticipation of this Sunday’s sporting event or family gathering, confess your failure to watch and be ready.
Christ exhorts: “Be on guard! Be alert!” Don’t immerse yourself in the things of this world and thus lose your own soul. Always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, your ears attuned to His Word. For in this way, you will ready for the Master’s return, whenever that may be!
This means that even though we always live as those who are walking under the shadow of death, you can live in confidence and peace. The believer in Jesus Christ does not have to fret about the final judgment, living in uncertainty and fear. Why? Because you have already heard God’s final verdict ahead of time. God let it slip out early. It is no longer a secret. It is called the absolution. God says, “I forgive you all your sin.” It is as sure and certain here on earth as it is in heaven!
A Lutheran pastor of the last century once said that a Christian should go to the Lord’s Supper as though he were going to his death, and that a Christian may then go to his death as though he were going to the Lord’s Supper. When we go to the Lord’s Supper, St. Paul tells us we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. When we go to our death, we will confess that Jesus’ death for our sins is our confidence. His blood is our righteousness and the forgiveness of our sins is the promise of an open heaven. Werner Elert once said the, “Day of Judgment… is just as close to us as the Judge is.”[i]
Faith rejoices to receive this Lord ever-near; unbelief is terrified. So again Elert, “Some live in the light of the Last Day, others in its shadow.”[ii] It is my privilege as God’s called and ordained servant to proclaim that the One who comes at the End is the Lord who came in the flesh to be our Brother and Savior. He came so those broken by their sin might live, not in the long shadows of the Last Day, but in the brilliance of the light of the face of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Go in the peace and joy of the Lord. Live each day in confidence and hope, exercising yourself in the faith that works through love. You are ready for the Master’s return. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This sermon is adaptation of an essay by John T. Pless on Craft of Preaching.
[i] Werner Elert, The Last Things, trans. Martin Bertram (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 28.
[ii] Elert, 28.