Oculi, The Third Sunday of Lent March 26, 2000
And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; “men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.
In Him, who said He’s coming back for us, dear friends in Christ, dear fellow redeemed.
Have you ever tried to picture in your mind what the final day on earth will be like? It’s hard to imagine. We have nothing in the realm of our own experience to make any kind of comparison. Our lives take a fairly normal course, as one day flows into the next. We work, we play, we eat, we sleep. And then the pattern repeats. Now just imagine—this pattern of life suddenly interrupted, permanently discontinued from up there in the sky.
Believe me, what Jesus promises in our text will get your attention. You won’t be casual on the last day. You won’t decide to finish up what you’re doing and then check it out a few minutes later. The last day will be too dramatic, too compelling, and for some people too intense. It’s going to be bigger and brighter than anything that Hollywood could ever produce. It’s going to exceed the visual drama of a blockbuster movie for at least two reasons. A) it’s too real (not just a story). And B) it’s too personal, it’s happening to them and to all of us, not to somebody else. Wherever people are on the face of the earth, they will all take notice and have one of two reactions. For some, the majority, the last day will be a nightmare, the worst of their fears come true. For others, the minority, the last day will be a joyous occasion, like the way a hostage might feel when he’s finally released from captivity and taken back to his homeland.
Are you thinking ahead to the next question? Which category are we going to fit? We’d like to think very positively on this subject, I know. And I, as a pastor, want to encourage that kind of thinking. But the fact remains: within our own person part of us fits one category, and part of us fits the other. Our flesh wants to hide, panic, cower in fear, and assume the fetal position when Jesus comes back. But our faith is tuned in to all this information that Jesus gave. Our faith knows the secret of survival. It has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with Christ. Remember how the disciples were looking up when Jesus ascended into heaven? That’s the same posture and position that you can assume, when the Lord comes back. Based on what He says and based on what He does, we know it’s true:
He wants to comfort you when He says He’s coming back. But sometimes we get the opposite effect. We start to wonder how the Lord’s return will coincide with the course of our personal lives. How will they intersect? What will we be doing? Imagine a child doing something dangerous, something that he knows is wrong. He thinks he’s by himself, but his father catches him in the act. At that moment how will the youngster feel? How will he face the stern, disapproving look of his parent? Chances are, he’s going to look down. He’s going to look away. There’s too much shame to look up into his father’s eyes. If the Lord comes back during our lifetime, we will still be losing ground in the battle over sin. We may even be smack dab in the middle of a sinful way of thinking, a harsh word coming out of our mouth, a wrong deed—caught red-handed as they say. Will we look up to see His face? Will we look away in shame? Jesus says: “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” Only He could answer like that. Only He could make it happen. Because of His sacrifice, we can look up, no fear, no shame, no lingering guilt.
Meanwhile, the other occupants of this world, including some people that we know personally, all the unbelievers are going to be thrown in a state of total panic. It’s a virtual meltdown of terror that Jesus predicts: “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth.” It all begins with something so unreal, cosmic disturbances never yet seen. We get further information in Matthew 24: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” The very forces of nature and the universe will fall apart at the seams—a sure sign, by the way, that our time is up and the end of the world is here.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the unbeliever who lives to see that day. How many horrifying thoughts will flood the mind? “Oh no, my life is over! My accomplishments, my valuables, my possessions, they’re of no use to me now. Oh no, those religious people were right! There really is a God. And He’s coming to confront me!” We can’t begin to measure the dread … the dread that fills the minds of those who lived their lives apart from Christ! It’s enough, Jesus says, to make them faint, to cause them to pass out. That’s because they know what’s coming next. They’ll expect judgment from God, and that judgment will strike terror in the heart. Fear will consume them when they see Jesus up there, “coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Let’s draw a clear distinction between the first coming of Christ and the second. When Jesus was here the first time, He looked like everyone else. His humanity was quite obvious. His divinity, for the most part, was out of sight, hidden from view. Those who encountered Jesus at the human level, person to person, could not tell He was God, just by looking at the Man. On the last day there will be no doubt. No one will ask the question, “Who’s that up there?” They’ll know just by looking. They’ll know it’s the Lord God, making His grand entrance on center stage, with all of His power, all of His angelic entourage, all of His glory in plain sight.
Will it be a scary sight for us? Or will it have a comforting effect? The question fascinates me. If you search the Bible for those rare examples when God revealed some of His glory to sinful men, remember the pattern? The men look away. Moses covers his face at the burning bush. The shepherds cower at the sight of angels on the hillside. Peter, James, and John are overwhelmed at the sight of Jesus glorified on the mountain and the Father’s voice speaking from the cloud. It’s simply too much for sinful, human nature to take. The fear of God’s holiness, the shame of guilt, the terror of judgment—these are all natural reactions for anyone who has broken God’s commandments. That’s why you and I should keep our pride under wraps. We have no business feeling smug at the final outcome. If it weren’t for Jesus on the cross, the knowledge of the Gospel given to us, the Spirit’s gift of our faith, we too would cower, tremble, and panic at the sight of Jesus on the last day.
How can we look up to greet Him, when we sin every day and could easily be committing sin the moment He arrives? By nature we have doubts. It’s a reflex of our flesh. By faith, however, we get to have hope. Jesus invites you to look up. Jesus invites you to welcome His arrival with calmness, assurance on the inside, what the apostle John describes as “boldness in the day of judgment, because as He is, so are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17)
Where could such boldness come from? It has to come from Christ. When the world goes on trial for all the rebellion, all the disobedience, all the sin, we’re just as guilty. We deserve the same condemnation. But the cross of Christ has done for us what no amount of good works or desperate pleading or fancy “lawyering” could ever do. The sacrifice of Jesus has become the big sin-eraser. It wipes so clean, not a single black mark is left on your record. Before you look up on Judgment Day, look at the cross on Calvary. There you see the assurance of your acquittal. There you see the compelling reason to meet Jesus with your head up, your eyes on Him, your mind at ease, and your heart full of hope.
The Bible gives you a “Judgment Day posture.” Head up, eyes on Christ, mind at ease, heart full of hope. When you see the awesome signs—the forces of nature falling apart everywhere you look, the total panic and desperation of unbelieving people, Jesus on full display up there—then go ahead. Dare to do what Jesus tells you to do. Only Jesus can make us look up on the last day. Because of His sacrifice, we can look directly at Him, no fear, no dread. Because of His promise, we can look up at something else—our future with Him. What a relief. What a great expectation. What a realistic hope we have.
Imagine a group of hostages, spending several years in a foreign prison. An awful place, an awful life. After all that confinement, neglect, oppression, they get some wonderful news. They’re going home. A special escort is coming to take them back to America. The day finally comes when they leave the prison cell and meet a man they’ve never seen before. And still, he’s a sight for sore eyes. On a certain level that’s how it goes with you and Jesus. For the present time you’re like a hostage. You’re trapped in this body with so many weaknesses, so many limitations. You’re shackled by the sinful tendencies of the flesh, keeping you back, holding you down. You’re confined to a trouble-filled life in a trouble-filled place. What a relief it’s going to be to see the escort coming. He’s coming to end your captivity. He’s coming to set you free!
The more you suffer and struggle in this world, the more you appreciate what I’m talking about. Jesus comes to take you out. Out of the troubles and the difficulties that we face. Out of the conflict that we have with the devil. And if we happen to be dead in the grave, He takes you out of that too. That’s what makes the last day so good. It’s a good day for us. Jesus said it’s the day of “your redemption."
He uses that word redemption with a very specific emphasis. Like we just said in the Second Article, He has redeemed us, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood.” And during the life we have on earth, we have the freedom of that redemption. We are free from the guilt of our sin right now and also the pending curse of hell. But the full release from all the side effects of sin, the fullness of life that God wants you to have, the final day when you move from the prison into the palace—that is all yet to come.
For now it’s a promise. He says that He will come with a gift. He will come to take you home. Therefore we can look forward to a bright future. We can look up to the one who says, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” When the Lord promises His return, it’s meant to be a comfort, not a fright. It’s meant to give you hope. Because of what He says and what He does, you get to inherit a much better life in a much better place. Only He could make it happen. Only He could make us look up and embrace this day when you get to move, out of this place into His place, the mansion of glory.
In this service we have examined another feature that makes Jesus Christ so unique. He’s the only one who could take the fear out of Judgment Day. He’s the only one who can wash us clean with the sacrifice of blood. He’s the only one who could replace guilt with forgiveness, life instead of death, heaven instead of hell. When you go back to your house tonight, you get to take His promise with you. You get to carry His forgiveness in your heart. When tomorrow comes with another problem, a difficult struggle, a shocking loss, He gives you a way to hold on. He gives you light at the end of the tunnel, a focal point for your faith, a reassuring glimpse into the future—your future with Him. Only He would care that much. Only He could promise that much. Only Jesus can make you look up and welcome the sight: your Savior coming for you, setting you free, taking you home. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.