Writing in 1952, Hermann Sasse stated,
'In our day the Biblical doctrine of the Last Things has come alive for us as a gift given in the midst of what the church has had to endure. At the beginning of this century, a complacent church regarded the Last Things as an element of the first Christian proclamation which more or less belonged to that first period, a form of the Gospel which was for us only of historical interest. Or alternately, it was thought of as something that might be of significance for the future, at the end of our lives, or at the end of the world, something we needed to study only in preparation for such an end. That there is for the church no more vitally relevant doctrine than that of the Last Things was brought home to Christians by all they were called upon to endure."[i]
In the over six decades since Sasse penned those words, eschatology has a major theme in both academic theology and popular spirituality, albeit the term is freighted with variegated definitions.[ii]
The last Sundays of the Church Year bring eschatology 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’ve said those words so often, but what do they mean?
Truth be told, we are 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 our lawn looks. 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 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 are a wake-up call. Think of the readings 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.
These are the Sundays of the end times. They point us to the sober reality that life will not go on as usual.
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. Then 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 perfect 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 the 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, 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.
Judgment Day really does begin on Good Friday, for it is there that Jesus is judged with our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous!
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 and is deceptive. It is easy to think that life just meanders on, that the comfortable routines that 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 filled to overflowing barns and concluded that his soul could be at rest for he had laid up for himself a bounty of wealth that would 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.
You see, 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 now even as one day—a day that is hidden from- 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 the day or hour. Faith lives by the precious promises that Jesus makes right now. “Heaven and earth,” Jesus says, “will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
That means that even though we always live as those who walk under the shadow of death, we 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!
That means that even though we always live as those who walk under the shadow of death, we can live in confidence and peace.
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 then may go to his death as though he were going to the Lord’s Supper. When we go to the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul tells us, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. When we go to our death, then we will confess that Jesus’ death for our sins is our confidence. His blood is our righteousness and the forgiveness of our sins, the promise of an open heaven. Werner Elert once said the “Day of Judgment . . . is just as close to us as the Judge is.”[iii]
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.”[iv]
It is the office of preaching to proclaim that the One who comes at the End, is the Lord who came in the flesh to be our Brother and Savior that 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.
[i] Hermann Sasse, “Last Things: Church and Antichrist” in We Confess the Church, trans. Norman E. Nagel (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 108.
[ii] For an overview, see Reinhard Slenczka, Ziel und End (Neuendettelsau: Freidmund-Verlag, 2008), 67–115 and “Last Things” in Confessing the Gospel Today, Vol.II ed. Samuel Nafzger (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 1109–1194; also see Steven Paulson, “The Place of Eschatology in Modern Theology” Lutheran Quarterly (Winter 1998), 327–353 and Jeffrey Silcock, “A Lutheran Approach to Eschatology” Lutheran Quarterly (Winter 2017), 373–395.
[iii] Werner Elert, The Last Things, trans. Martin Bertram (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 28.
[iv] Elert, 28.