Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Imagine walking around the Mall and Capitol Hill on a beautiful spring day, the Capitol dome shining bright white in the sun, the bright marble and simulated stone of the museums and federal buildings glinting, their majesty dwarfing the seas of tourists and workers moving swiftly about among the cars and tour buses. And high above it all, the Washington Monument piercing the sky. It’s a glorious sight, and you feel small surrounded by these buildings— these temples, really, to American government, history, and culture. You can’t help but gawk at them in their size and grandeur. “What stones! What buildings!”
Now imagine them all torn to the ground, utterly destroyed, the Capitol dome in ruins, the Washington monument laid out, the stones spread apart because it was not built with mortar. The Library of Congress (my favorite building on the Hill—please don’t tell my old colleagues at the Smithsonian) a smoking hulk, the busts of authors that ring the building ripped down. Utter and total desolation, and nary a soul wandering the destroyed streets. The beautiful city is gone, destroyed, its majesty a mere memory. The power concentrated there, gone forever, never to return.
This is the sort of destruction that the city of Jerusalem experienced in the year 70 after the Roman general Titus (later made emperor) took the city following a long siege. The city’s walls were torn down, the Temple destroyed, its treasury carried off to Rome. Literally, not one stone stood upon another, and all that exists of the Temple today is its Western Wall which is left standing above ground. You can still see a depiction of the destruction and sacking of the city on the Arch of Titus on the Roman Forum to this day. The Roman soldiers are displayed as victors bringing home the spoils, and the Jews are shown as prisoners and slaves, a defeated people.
The fate Jerusalem suffered was something that was inconceivable to the Jews of the 1st Century. How could their great city, a holy city, beloved by God and home to his temple, fall prey to destruction again? How could the whole thing be brought low? But this is what Jesus tells the disciples. The city will be destroyed someday, and its destruction will be but one of the harbingers of the last days. And this won’t even be the worst thing to happen, not by a long shot. There will be wars and rumors of wars, internecine conflict, earthquakes, famines, antichrists, religious strife, familial fighting. Parents will turn on their children because those children trust Christ, and children on their parents for the same reason. These things will all happen before the last day, and those who persevere in faith in Christ will be saved from the tribulation.
And the last day is coming. The prophet Daniel, writing in the 6th Century BC while Judea was in exile in Babylon, spoke of its coming in our Old Testament reading this morning:
12:1And at that time Michael will take up his place, the great angel, who is the supporter of the children of your people: and there will be a time of trouble, such as there never was from the time there was a nation even till that same time: and at that time your people will be kept safe, everyone who is recorded in the book. 2And a number of those who are sleeping in the dust of the earth will come out of their sleep, some to eternal life and some to eternal shame.
According to Daniel, things are going to get bad. Really bad. So bad that no one has ever experienced anything like it before. So bad that people really can’t fathom how terrible things will actually be. Things had been bad for Daniel. He lived in exile in a kingdom far from his homeland and had almost been killed on one occasion for his faith in YHWH, his God. His Jerusalem had been destroyed by a foreign army, his temple torn down, and the kingdom of Judah left in shambles. The northern kingdom of Israel had been obliterated, its people carried off by the Assyrians and replaced by colonists. Things did not look good in Daniel’s world. But they would get worse. A more horrendous day is coming, and with it, the day of judgment, when God will cause some to awake to everlasting life, and some to “shame and everlasting contempt.”
But when will this be? Daniel says it is still coming. So does Jesus; a time will come when the whole world is rent by wars and tragedies, famines, hunger, and strife; a day when the Gospel will not be tolerated. And ever since it has been prophesied, countless people have been on the lookout for the last day, the day of judgment, though it seems to elude us. Experiencing the persecution of his own era, the Apostle Paul hoped it would come in his lifetime. Numerous church fathers predicted the end would come in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. In 793, signs and portents seemingly in accord with the end of days were experienced in England and recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:
This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island [Lindisfarne, if you’ve been to England], by rapine and slaughter.
The last day didn’t come in 793, but rather, the Vikings did.
When the year 1000 came, many people expected the end to come with the millennium. In 1284, Pope Innocent III stated that the end would come 666 years after the rise of Islam. By the early 1500s, even Martin Luther was expecting the “letztes Tag,” the end of days, to come, if not in his lifetime, then by the end of the century, given that the preaching of the Gospel was being suppressed by the papal faction within the church and violence was everywhere. And even now, we have seen the world wracked by increasingly terrible wars and violence, with the twentieth century alone seeing more mass death than almost any other century in recorded memory. In my own lifetime, the United States has been involved in seemingly continual warfare in the Middle East and Central Asia. There have been terrible natural disasters here and abroad, and famines and disease outbreaks (most recently Ebola). In the last few weeks we’ve seen arsons and shooting sprees, great wildfires engulfing the west. Are these signs of the last day? The coming judgment? Christ’s return in glory and the raising of the dead? These are all the sorts of things that Jesus and Daniel spoke of as signs, and yet no-one, not even Christ himself, knows when that final day will come. And all these things are bad, really terrible and awful. Does it mean that something even more terrible and awful is on the way? Christians around the globe are being persecuted. Is persecution coming for us, too? Is it already here and we’re just blind to it?
On the other hand, it’s easy to become jaded or complacent in the face of constant calamity. It’s easy to think about the last day being off in some far away, nebulous future, nowhere near us. The disciples certainly were not thinking with that sort of urgency. “Isn’t this city grand, Jesus? Aren’t all these buildings amazing?” For them, Jerusalem has been here forever— since before the days of Abraham— and it will go on for a long time into the future. If the last day is far off, why worry? This is the complacency the Pharisees fell into, the sort of complacency that allows a person to get comfortable with making himself look good while disregarding God’s word. It’s the sort of complacency that allows a person to get comfortable with sin, or act like the judgment isn’t real, or if it is, won’t be coming for a long time, so who cares? It’s a hedonistic complacency that lulls a person into a false sense of security where he believes that the end will come, eventually, but not for him.
It seems to me that we’ve fallen into this false sense of security regarding the last day. Sure, we acknowledge it when we say the Creeds— “He will come again to judge the living and the dead…I believe in the resurrection of the body”—but we function as if it isn’t real or as if it’s not coming. The hymns we selected to put in our hymnal reflect this. Professor David Adams at Concordia Seminary once pointed out in a sermon on Zephaniah 1 that we no longer have hymns in our hymnal proclaiming God’s coming judgment, that we have functionally stopped believing in divine judgment. He notes, “In our 1941 hymnal there was a section of eight hymns entitled, “Final Judgment.” In our 1976 hymnal, there was a section of three hymns. In our current hymnal, there is no section entitled, “Final Judgment.””
Any hymns we do have that deal with the subject speak of Christ’s coming in glory, but they step around the issue of the judgment itself. We no longer sing the Dies Irae, the great 6th-century hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great, titled in the Lutheran Hymnal, “Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning.” Look it up sometime— it’s hymn 607.
We seem to no longer really believe that a judgment is coming when we will have to give an account of our lives and when God will mete out his judgment on a sinful humanity. Along with this, we seem to no longer believe that we necessarily have committed sins that God views as worthy of his wrath. God doesn’t really draw distinctions between venial and mortal sins—those sins we commit just by living and those we commit by intent— all sins are equal in his eyes. Every day in every way, we violate the Ten Commandments in some capacity. We violate the first commandment when we put our whole trust in something that isn’t God. We violate the second when we speak God’s name inappropriately. We violate the third when we neglect God’s word and teaching. We violate the fourth when we dishonor our parents and those whom God has put above us. We violate the fifth when we hate others or do little to help them. We violate the sixth when we fantasize about other people. We violate the seventh when we try to leverage the odds in our favor or take more than our fair share. We violate the eighth when we prefer to think the worst of others. And we violate the ninth and tenth when we wish we had things which did not belong to us. These all don’t seem very terrible; in fact they seem quite small compared to the “big” sins of blasphemy, murder, rape, or grand larceny, but before God they are all worthy of the same reward: death. And when we act like our sins, big and small, are no great deal, we violate every commandment because we do not act as if God is serious about what he tells us will happen. And then we are seriously in trouble, because it means that we may be among those who will be subject to “eternal shame.” The final judgment is a real and terrible thing. “Day of wrath, o day of mourning! / See fulfilled the Prophet’s warning, / Heav’n and earth in ashes burning.”
If this scares you, well, it should. God’s judgment is not something to take lightly. It’s terrible, and we all deserve it. Who will deliver us? “What shall I, frail man, be pleading? / Who for me be interceding / When the just are mercy needing?”
Here Daniel speaks good news: And at that time your people will be kept safe, everyone who is recorded in the book. Michael, God’s great archangel, will beat back the devil’s final attack upon God’s people, his Israel, and all those whose names are in “the book” will be preserved and saved, and God will raise them to eternal life with him. And who are these whose names are in the book? They are the ones who are in Christ, who have faith in him. They are the ones who trust in the work of the Son of God, who believe that his death and resurrection has been for them. Their sins may have made them worthy of condemnation before God, but his sacrifice on the cross has won them and made them his own. They are marked by his blood and so are written in the Book of Life. They are the elect, and the devil in his schemes cannot touch them. When they suffer for Christ’s sake— when all turn against them and persecute them— they will be preserved and will persevere. He will not desert them. They are his forever, and they will be raised to everlasting life. They will endure to the end and be saved.
This is what Jesus tells the disciples. Calamities will come, destruction will come. Antichrists will come speaking as if they are the Messiah, attempting to deceive the children of God and bring them to destruction. Christ’s enemies will beat and slay those who trust in him in attempts to harm their faith, but he will preserve them. Trusting in him, they will be raised up to eternal life. They will be kept inviolate. And they will shine brightly in the Lord’s glory forever.
This is the promise that Christ extends to us in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper. Though we are sinners, his death and resurrection is for us as well. The promise belongs to you and to me. If we trust in him and understand that his death and resurrection have bought eternal life for us, we can take comfort in knowing that we are saved from that fate of “shame and eternal contempt.” The terrors of the final days and the last judgment can harm our bodies and our minds, but they will not touch our souls; Christ will keep us safe in him and will bring us into his kingdom, raising us up to eternal life with him. This is the promise, and as Luther says, if you believe it, you have it. In Christ, eternal life and salvation is yours— now— today! He will not forsake you, even if you are subject to “a time of trouble, such as there never has been since there was a nation.” You are his, and in that you can rejoice.
May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.