Last week’s sermon was a bit thick! But, then, how could it be otherwise?! It was about the resurrection! And as much as the Bible talks about the resurrection, it doesn’t tell us much.
Even St. Paul, who loves to lay out his explanations in detail, must finally declare, “Behold, I tell you a mystery!” And St. John, who can often be mysterious, at most he can say, “Beloved, we are God’s children now [already “sons of God” and “sons of the resurrection”], and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when He appears we will be like Him…”
So what does that mean? Oh yes, there are always those folks…theologians, too…who, like the Sadducees last week, will spell out in detail exactly what is supposed to happen when we die, exactly when the resurrection will take place, and things of the sort. But the only thing you can conclude for sure from them is that they are surely wrong…because the Bible calls the resurrection a mystery! But it’s a mystery held in Christ…and that makes all the difference. Because we may clearly know the Christ by Word and Sacrament, even while the mystery of the resurrection and what is yet to come baffles us.
Now today, that mystery deepens as we consider another of the Last Things: Judgment. “And He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.” Oh how we preachers have used that judgment to drive fear into the hearts of our hearers! It’s as though preachers have a dark side which wants to be like Jonathan Edwards in his 1741 sermon: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God…that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, [He] abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…and yet it is nothing but His hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
“It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell last night.… And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking His pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending His solemn worship…. O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in…”
But is that what Jesus is doing in our text? Is our Lord spelling out all these horrendous things to come only to instill fear in His disciples? “Be afraid! Be very afraid!”
He is not! Just as the beloved John does not write his famous Book of Revelation, with all of its wild and outlandish visions, in order to create fear! John writes to instill hope in his readers. He writes to drive away fear, to build a confident faith in Christ. Which is exactly what Jesus is doing in this passage of judgment.
On the one hand, He is speaking of the judgment that is yet to come…on Jerusalem because of her unbelief, and on the world in the Last Day, “When they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” to judge the sinful world.
And yet…while there is judgment yet to come, the way Jesus speaks here it is also clear that this judgment is at hand. The things of which He speaks—wars, persecution, famines, plagues—these are the very things which have happened to Him at the hands of the world. And His point? “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And within 48 hours of hearing this, the disciples would see their redemption.
This is what St. John is going on about in Revelation. We have already seen Armageddon. We have already seen the judgment of God poured out like great bowls of wrath. It happened on that barren hill outside Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon.
The crucifixion of Jesus is the Judgment of God in the Last Day visited upon the One that day. With John’s Beast of Rome and the Beast of the temple hierarchy together with all the nations gathered at the cross to shout and jeer and war against the Lamb…there the judgment of God fell…on the Lamb! And He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
And all of these words of judgment in our Reading are not given so that we might live in fear about the future. These words are given that we might see the Judgment of the Last Day revealed on Good Friday. That we might clearly see that in Christ there is now no condemnation. The Judgment of God has come, and it was poured out for us on Christ. And in Christ we are free.
And we hear this freedom each week in the words of Absolution: “Your sin is forgiven.” We taste this freedom at the altar: “My body for you; My blood for you.” And in this freedom—freedom from Judgment because of Good Friday—we need have no fear, because hope has now displaced that fear.
Oh…but fear remains always close at hand. The good we would…we don’t do. The evil we would not…we do. And our own conscience begins to sound like a fire and brimstone preacher: “Aren’t you afraid to die? Don’t you tremble to think of that day when you will stand before God and He will pass judgment on your miserable life?!”
But…even when our own conscience condemns us, Christ is greater than our conscience. Because what is yet to come, has already come on Him—judgment, full and final, our judgment. So in Him, with Him we live with hope when we see the signs of foreboding about what is coming into the world. In Him, with Him we find refuge when we hear of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes in various places, famines and pestilences. In Him, with Him we are lifted up again, even when our own conscience condemns us, for He is always greater than our conscience. And where sin abounds, there grace abounds all the more!
So as St. John says: “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the Day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world.” And St. Paul is more blunt: “If God is for us, who can be against us? …For I am sure that neither death nor life…nor things present nor things to come…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And in that love, our Lord’s crucifixion/judgment love, He lays out all of the dark judgment in this text right before our eyes in order for Him to say, “Fear not! Lift up your head. For I am your redemption…and I am with you always…even to the Last Day!”