Prepare for the Last Day

Text: Mark 13:1-13
Date: Pentecost XXIV (Proper 28) + 11/15/09 (11/12/00)
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

As we approach the end of the liturgical year the lectionary turns to the theme of the Last Things, the Last Day, the “parousia” or second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the question is, Are you prepared? Are you prepared for the Lord’s return? for your last day? for the last judgment and for your destiny of either eternal life through the forgiveness of your sins or for eternal suffering and death through unbelief? As when a person prepares for a long trip or an extended vacation by packing suit cases and travel bags, or as a person prepares for Christmas by decorating a tree, putting colorful light displays outside like a number of my neighbors were doing yesterday, then ordering, purchasing and wrapping gifts, just what does a person prepared for the Last Day look like? What’s involved with that preparation?

It is the genius of the lectionary how the Christian, liturgical year comes to an end with the theme of the Lord’s second coming, preparing the way for another year of grace that begins with the Advent/Christmas theme concerning our Lord’s first coming. And, if I were to ask which you think is more important—His first coming at Christmas or His final coming at the Last Day—I wonder if most of us would say His first coming is more important if, for no other reason than that we know that story better. As for His second and final coming, what do we know for certain and what do we expect concerning the promised second coming of Christ, of our passage to the Last Day and of the life of the world to come? And then, how does that expectation affect our lives now, if at all—the way we believe, the way we worship, the way we conduct ourselves today? Is it a source of hope and joy, especially as the Christian grows in awareness of the transience of life lived in the shadow of the Cross? Or is it a subject of fear and doubt?

There are lots of voices out there with all sorts of wild theories about the second coming of our Lord, some even going so far as to predict certain dates and times. Like the first disciples in our text we have so many questions. “Tell us,” they said, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

Let’s be clear as to what they were asking. The occasion was a day in Holy Week when they were leaving the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones!” they said. We’re told that the temple buildings were made out of gleaming white stones, some of them as large as 37 feet long, 12 feet high and 18 feet wide! You can almost imagine the sight as Jesus and His disciples looked at the temple from across the way on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, gleaming, almost shining in the sunlight. Jesus took this opportunity to tell them something amazing, something almost unbelievable. “Do you see all these great buildings?” He replied. Then He said, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” With these words Jesus predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. As the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar almost 600 years before, was a sign of God’s punishment of the rebelliousness of Judah in the time of Jeremiah (Jer. 7), so now, because of their rejection of the promised Messiah, God would once again and for all time finally destroy the temple. Jesus’ prediction was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome in a.d. 70. From now on, the true “descendants of Abraham” would be only those who have faith in Jesus—the only true temple those in whom Christ dwells by faith, His body, the Church, regardless of ethnic background as God originally promised Abraham, that by his offspring all the nations of the world will be blessed.

All of these words of Jesus apply to the time of increasing persecution of and hostility toward the infant Church and the events that led to the destruction of the temple. At the same time, however, they apply also to the time that leads up to our Lord’s second coming. That’s called “rectilinear prophecy,” that is, seeing two future events at once though separated by years or centuries or millennia.

The key to understanding this text is in the words “watch out,” “be on your guard,” “stand firm to the end.” That’s what the preparation looks like. These are encouraging words, pastoral words meant to promote the vigilance of faith. So, to be truly prepared means, as of first importance, to “watch out that no one deceives you.” The greatest danger to falling away from faith is spiritual deception. We may think of everything from doomsday cults such as have sprung up from time to time, to false imitations of Christianity as in certain sects. There is the recurring so-called “gospel” of only positive thinking with the goal only of making your life better now with no thought of eternity or judgment, sin or grace. And what about the more subtle deceptions that crop up even from within the Church? Deceptions such as the historical-critical method of interpretation of the Bible that actually destroys its message, a method so rampant throughout the Christian world today, or all the various programs of Church Growth that result actually from a lack of faith that God really does work through his appointed means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments—programs aimed only at gaining crowds of people on the basis of something other than God’s means of grace and other than forgiveness and salvation.

The most dangerous deception possibly is to be lulled into a complacency that ignores our true need of God and His salvation and lures people away from concern for God’s Word, faith and love. It is as St. Peter wrote in his Second Catholic Epistle,

“Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” He promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:1-4).

To “watch out,” “be on your guard” and “stand firm” means to remain strong in the faith—the faith in the Gospel; the faith that is the creation not of our own reason or strength or “positive thinking” or logical deduction, but of God the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps sinners in faith through the Word of God; the faith that can be strengthened only by means of remaining in connection with God’s promised means of grace, his Word and Sacraments.

So, to be prepared for the Last Day means, simply, to remain and be strong in the Christian faith. To be prepared means, also, not to be deceived and disturbed by the happenings around us. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come…. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” “Birth pains,” interestingly, is a technical phrase used by the rabbis for the intense suffering predicted to precede the deliverance by the Messiah! Everything from disasters to the troubles reported in the daily news are but occasions for faith to turn and hope for God’s promised deliverance. Though God has in the past and can again use disasters to call people back from their complacency and unbelief, it is rank superstition and not faith to assign to every event some significance beyond what it is. Wars and earthquakes, and the general degeneration of morality and civility in the world around us only testify to the fact that we live in a world wrecked by sin, the real problem which has only one real remedy, namely, the forgiveness and taking away of sin by the Lamb of God, by the blood of the Messiah, Christ Jesus the Lord.

A more certain sign Jesus tells us for which to be on our guard is the outright persecution of Christians. Being handed over to councils, governors and kings simply for being a confessing Christian is not something only read about in ancient history or portrayed in films. It has been happening throughout the centuries even to this day to differing degrees in different parts of the world—today especially in China, Africa and the Middle East, but also right here in the U.S. The sad thing is that division because of faith in Christ cuts even into the most intimate relationships: “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child.” The bottom line, “All men will hate you because of me,” says our Lord. Nevertheless, He also says, “do not be alarmed,” “do not worry.” “He who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

So, who is truly prepared for the Last Day? Only he or she who stands firm in the faith—
the faith that knows and trusts in the forgiveness of sins brought about by our Lord’s first coming when he fulfilled God’s Law perfectly for us and yet died as the only perfect, blood sacrifice and atonement for the sins of the whole world;
the faith that is emboldened because it is vindicated by the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the first-fruits and guarantee that we will be raised on the Last Day to eternal life;
the faith that knows and trusts in the Lord’s promise of His second coming when we will receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

The return of Christ is a source of hope and joy for the Christian, for “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28). The signs are all there. They’ve always been there. The Lord is coming again—and soon. He who stands firm to the end will be saved. Are you ready? What does a person prepared for the Last Day look like? The letter to the Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).