Thoughts on Preaching at the End of the Church Year

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The time is always near. The world rages on and in it you have tribulation, it is true. But the One who is standing at the gate has conquered.

“Heaven and Earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31).

These final Sundays of the Christian Year, draw us toward the Last Day. That final day is now hidden from our sight. We might even be tempted to believe as though it were unreal (see 2 Peter 3:1-13). Writing in the 19th century, Pastor Wilhem Loehe noted:

“The day of the Lord will come when we least expect it. On that day, everything will go on as usual, as any other day. The sun will rise, quiet and new, to run its course. The earth will give her yield, according to the season; the brooks will flow to the streams, and the streams will run to the sea as on every day. The people will go about their daily work and anticipate the evening; the old and the young will toil and do whatever is laid upon them. The children will hasten to school to gain wisdom for a long life. In short, as it is today, so will it be on the last day! No one will notice that the hour is at hand that the Father has kept for Himself. Then, all at once, the light of eternity burst into time... Suddenly everything comes to an end – all cares, all rejoicing, all sighing, and crying and working. The world becomes silent: every eye looks heavenward and sees, recognizes in the midst of the angels the One whose concealed life is now revealed” (The Word Remains: Wilhelm Loehe-Selected Writings on the Church Year and the Christian Life, pages 38-39).

“And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead,” is the faith we confess in the Nicene Creed. We have 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 I have to face?

The answer to this 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. Today’s Gospel is a wake-up call. Jesus says learn from the fig tree. When it begins to blossom, you know summer is at hand. Wake up to the reality that the Son of Man is at the gate.

When it begins to blossom, you know 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. 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 they reap the elect from north and south, from east and west. None who 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 our sin deserved - God’s wrath and death itself. You see, judgment day really does begin on Good Friday for it is there Jesus is judged with our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous! Indeed, the generation 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 and is deceptive. It is easy to think 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 filled-to-overflowing barns and concluded his soul could be at rest for he had laid up for himself a bounty of wealth which 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 hidden from us now - 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 Jesus makes right now. “Heaven and earth,” Jesus says, “will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”

Faith lives by the precious promises Jesus makes right now.

That means 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!

A Lutheran pastor of the last century once said 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 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.

The time is always near. The world rages on and in it you have tribulation, it is true. But the One who is standing at the gate has conquered.

Helmut Thielicke was a well-known Lutheran preacher in Germany during WWII. After his congregation’s church building had been destroyed in one of the bombing raids, he preached to his frightened flock saying that he who has the victory of the last hour can endure the next few minutes. And that is what we have – the victory of the last hour. It is the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. So, we are bold to pray: Amen, come Lord Jesus, come!