The Last Sunday of the Church Year November 23, 2003
239, 446, 612, 616
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.”
In the name of Jesus, our returning Savior, dear fellow-redeemed:
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way!” The four high school students didn’t see themselves as criminals. They had just been looking for some fun on a boring Friday night. They had been drinking a little and driving a little too fast, but how were they to know that at just the moment they were speeding around a tight curve in the dark city park two people would be walking along the road. The driver struck both, killing one and putting the other into the ICU.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” They had heard the warnings of parents and police, but these young people had not taken them seriously. They still did not see themselves as criminals, and yet they had been arrested, jailed, and were now sitting in a courtroom facing a judge and charged with manslaughter.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way!” will be the anguished cry of millions in another courtroom on another day. There are many who are going through life today choosing their own course, ignoring God’s signs and warnings, and not believing that He is really serious or that they will ever be held accountable for anything. In their minds, if there is a God, He must be a kindly, grandfatherly type who would never be too hard on anyone.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way” will be their tragic cry as they stand before the highest court of all and realize just how serious the proceedings are. Eternal life or death is on the line. So that we may be prepared and ready, the Lord gives us a graphic preview and warning of the world’s great day in court.
Daniel’s dream transports us to a courtroom unlike any other. This is a heavenly courtroom on Judgment Day. We see it being set up for the trial. Thrones are put in place and soon the Judge enters and is seated. Over the course of history there have been countless judges, some wise like Solomon and others who perverted the law they were sworn to uphold. But no judge could ever compare to this one. No one else can claim the title: “Ancient of Days.” “Ancient” does not mean He is decrepit and senile because of age. Rather, He is eternal, without beginning or end. Peoples and kingdoms come and go, but He remains the same. He has seen it all. He knows it all. He won’t be fooled or intimidated.
We are accustomed to seeing judges in black robes, but the Ancient of Days wears a robe of snow-white purity. He is holy. His standard is absolute perfection. Anything less is a capital offense in His eyes. Instead of sitting on a high bench with an official government seal on the wall behind Him, He has a royal throne with wheels such as you would see on a war chariot. The throne and its wheels are fiery, showing all present that He has the power and authority to administer punishment. Millions of angels stand by—ready to carry out His every command.
The Ancient of Days is God Himself, before whom all people will stand one day. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 NIV). It won’t matter how long ago the person lived or whether his body was buried or cremated or completely lost somewhere. The Bible says, “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them” (Rev. 20:13 NIV). Everyone will be there: Adam and Eve, Moses, Pharaoh, the Christian martyrs, every world leader, all the billions of ordinary people, and you and I.
As we go about our familiar daily routines, the Judgment can seem so far off as to be irrelevant. Other things, such as a big project at work or holiday gatherings or family responsibilities can seem to be more of a priority. But then remember, the court date is already circled on the Judge’s calendar. It is on the way. Ready or not, we will stand before the Ancient of Days.
The court date is a terrifying prospect for those who are unprepared, but for those who know and trust the Judge, it offers a great deal of comfort for the future. Our present world is filled with sin and injustice. Children are aborted before birth. Others are abused by those who are entrusted by God with their care. God’s gift of marriage is trampled by sinful desires. Governments misuse their power to take advantage of their citizens rather than protect them. Children of God are often cheated and wronged.
We can begin to wonder whether the world is on its own and entirely out of control. But the Ancient of Days sees it all. He is still in charge. The Day is coming when He will settle accounts and set everything right. Isaiah writes: “See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind….For with fire and with his sword the Lord will execute judgment upon all men” (Isaiah 66:15-16 NIV).
An awed hush falls over the entire courtroom. All eyes are on the Judge as He opens the books. Everything is recorded there. In the book of life are written all the names of God’s people. In the other books is the complete record of every charge, every shred of evidence, and every bit of testimony necessary for the Judge to make a fair determination of guilt or innocence.
What will be our defense? We can’t very well deny guilt. The condemning evidence is all there. Every impure thought, every angry outburst, every sinful action and every failure to do good is in the books. Besides that, Satan is there as the prosecuting attorney demanding that God take the gavel of justice and pronounce us guilty. Can we argue that it should not be this way, that we should not be held accountable, because it’s not our fault? Can we blame our parents or society or the wrongs others have done to us for our sins? The Judge says, “No, the soul who sins is the one who will die.” Can we plead that we have paid our debt by our sorrow over sin and by all the good we have done? Can we affect the verdict by appearing in court cleaned-up and wearing a suit and tie? None of these things can change the fact of our guilt.
The only hope for acquittal comes from outside ourselves. If we look at the heavenly courtroom again, we will see another throne set beside the Ancient of Days. Daniel says, “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence” (Daniel 7:13). This "Son of Man" on the right hand of the Father is Jesus. The epistle lesson urges, “Look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus is our defense lawyer who stands beside us in court and offers His own life and death in our behalf.
Jesus says, “Yes, Father, your law is holy and pure, and whoever is to stand justified before you must also be holy and pure. But I lived that holy life for every sinner, so that everyone who believes has my righteousness. Yes, Father, you are just in condemning sin and punishing it with death. But I suffered the pain and death for all, that everyone who believes is washed clean by my blood. Therefore you can rightfully pronounce them ‘not guilty’ for my sake!” “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). That is the basis on which every human being will be judged. Christ earned salvation for all, but when that gift is refused, salvation is forfeited.
The Judge will point to the evidence of faith or unbelief in the person’s life, and then to everyone who rejected forgiveness in Jesus He will pronounce, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The fiery river flowing from the throne like a stream of molten lava will sweep them away into eternal suffering totally cut off from any contact or blessing from God. There will be no more hope, no appeal to a higher court, and no second chance. Instead, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the torture of conscience saying over and over again: “It didn’t have to be this way. This is your own fault. God offered you a Savior.”
In contrast, Jesus, the Judge, will say to those whose lives evidenced a living faith, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). Then we will stand before God with perfect resurrected bodies and minds. With our own two eyes we will see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We will be with the choir of angels and be reunited with loved ones and all the other believers we never met here in time. We will live forever with the Lord in unspoiled glory and joy.
One day visions and previews will give way to present reality. One day it will be our day in court. That day lies somewhere in the future. But right now is the time to get ready, not when things slow down at work or when the children are older or when it’s retirement time or when death seems imminent. Now is the time of God’s grace! Now is the day of salvation! Tomorrow could be too late!
May we use every day to prepare ourselves by coming to Jesus for forgiveness and trusting in His righteousness alone. Then instead of mourning, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way!” we can say, “Thank you, Lord, for causing everything to work out just the way it was supposed to for our salvation!” Amen.
Lord, on that day, that wrathful day,
When man to Judgment wakes from clay,
Be Thou the trembling sinner’s Stay,
Though heaven and earth shall pass away.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.