November 17, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!
The opening lyrics from the medieval hymn Dies Irae echo the statements heard in the Scripture Readings for today, the second-last Sunday in the Church Year. Malachi predicts a day of wrath: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” Jesus foretells strange happenings: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” Both statements disclose what will happen as this age is brought to an end.
But these are not the only declarations made concerning the end of this age. No, they stand as part of a longer series of texts strung through the canon. A coming day of judgment is mentioned in most of the prophetic books. The gospels record Jesus’ teaching that confirms that this will take place, and that He is involved in it. And the apostolic letters written to the Church prepare believers for this day to come. The Lord desires that His people be totally aware of what He will do. He does not leave it as a surprising matter.
But the disclosure of this impending day of doom is not only a matter of scaring people straight. It can have that effect, and rightly so. The curbing function of the Lord’s Law has its place. If hearing about eternal, divine wrath will keep you or anyone else from participating in actions that stand in opposition to the Lord’s moral teaching, well and good! There are times when the stick or crop are good instruments to use. They have their rightful place. Obedience to the Commandments can be done out of fear of the Lord, as the Small Catechism explanations remind us.
However, there is another reason why the Lord is very clear about what will take place at the end of the age. The Lord’s declarations point out how you and all His people can anticipate His promises coming to fulfillment. The actions predicted are consistent with the Lord’s character as He has revealed it in the Scriptures. The Lord speaks of Himself as just and supreme. He states that His will is going to be actualized; what He desires is going to take place. He says that His opponents and adversaries will not prevail. The Lord will act to make this so, and that is an essential part of the impending day of wrath.
This is behind the statement that the Lord gave through the prophet Malachi. His people had believed that the Lord’s ways were good and right. They had striven to follow them. But when they would look at how the unrighteous were prevailing and successful, then doubt set in. Why bother with following the Lord? Why travel the hard road, if it doesn’t really matter? Is it worth it? But to those questions, the Lord gives His answer: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
With those words, the Lord shows that He has seen the same things as His people. He is aware of their plight. He knows how the arrogant and evildoers seem to have everything go positively. Their actions seem to be unchecked. But it shall not be so forever. The Lord guarantees an end to that situation. But He goes further. For His people, something even better is promised: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” For those harassed and harried people who had remembered the Lord’s Law, who had been devoted to His ways, who had trusted in His Covenant promises, there is a salvation in that day of wrath that will come.
The same theme is found in Jesus’ words. Throughout His eschatological discourse in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that the Last Day can be anticipated by His followers. They need not fear it. Why? Not because the events will be wonderful. Not because earthquakes and pestilences and famines and wars are pleasant experiences. No, none of Jesus’ followers are actually wanting such events to take place, even though they will happen. But it’s what this day of wrath ushers in that makes it an anticipated day: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It’s why the Psalter conveys a mood of joy with its lyrics: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
Divine redemption is drawing near. It rises like the sun with righteousness in its wings. That is what is brought in that Last Day. The Lord has declared that it will be so. For those who belong to Him, those who fear His name, those who have received the benefit of His work, that day is a time of salvation. The new heaven and new earth that the Lord establishes are meant for them. They are ushered in when the Son of Man comes in all His power and glory. His people will have a place in that new age.
Jesus wants you to have your heads up when He returns. But this is not simply a wish that He has; it is what He has worked for you to experience. For the Son of Man who speaks about Himself coming with power and glory has come to this earth before. But that first time He wasn’t wrapped up in majesty. He was veiled in humility. He suffered as an obedient servant, experiencing the wrath of God as your substitute. Jesus was a scapegoat, a propitiation, an offering. And in His crucifixion, the same divine wrath that burned like a oven was poured out on Him. Why? So that the Lord would be trustworthy in what He says: sinfulness and unrighteousness do not go left unchecked, but are dealt with.
But that same Jesus also came out of the grave, rising like the sun, springing with everlasting life. He came with healing in His wings for you. It is the reason for the lyrics of praise offered in the Psalter: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things! His right hand and His holy arm have worked salvation for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.” That salvation has been made known to you. It has been disclosed in the preaching of Jesus’ works. And it has been delivered to you through His words of promise in Baptism, Absolution, and Supper.
The Dies Irae began with foreboding lyrics. But it also includes statements that testify to the work that Jesus has done and the desire to receive its benefits:
Think, kind Jesus!–my salvation
Caused Thy wondrous Incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation!
Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me,
On the Cross of suffering bought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Jesus will not forget what He has done for you. His grace is not given vainly. He will bring the everlasting results of His work to you on that day when He comes in glory. Jesus’ statements of vindication and acquittal will not pass away, just as He promises: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Jesus’ eternal words declare you to be His people, His saints, His redeemed. They speak forgiveness, life, and salvation to you. They guarantee you a place in His kingdom and a dwelling place in His Father’s house.
That is what transforms the Last Day into a time for you to anticipate and not fear. Jesus gives you the command: “But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” The strength to stand before the Son of Man when He returns has been given to you. It isn’t found in the depth of your being or in the foundation of your souls. It’s not in your efforts. But it comes from Jesus Himself and is brought to you by His words of promise. Receiving His forgiveness, His righteousness, His redemption, you will be able to escape all that will take place and stand before Him. So when that Last Day comes, you will be able to do what His eternal words exhort: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.