In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
We make a big deal out of preparedness. Growing up downstate near the New Madrid Fault, we are told to be prepared for a cataclysmic earthquake. My parents never really take that advice. Some might call it denial, a refusal to deal with the inevitable. “The Big One” hasn’t happened yet, and it probably won’t happen tomorrow, so what’s the point? We know it’s coming, but we don’t want to deal with it.
Denial is even greater when it comes to dealing with our death or the coming of the Lord to judge the living and the dead. We know they are coming, but we don’t want to deal with them. We might think funeral planning is uncomfortable, even a bit morbid. We procrastinate writing our wills or dealing with anything that reads, “in the event of my death.” Consider Job’s words, Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. Our days are numbered on the fingers of God’s hand. We know it, but we live in denial of it.
How do you prepare for your death, or the visible coming of Jesus, whichever comes first? You don’t. You can’t. God does. He prepares us for our death by sending His Son to die for us, and by baptizing us into His death, and by feeding us His crucified and risen body and blood in His Supper, and by bringing His faith-creating, faith-enlivening Word to our ears. The only “end-times preparedness kit” is the one God gave us – the Word and the sacraments that deliver Jesus. Baptism and daily dying and rising in our baptism through repentance and the forgiveness of sins preached in Jesus’ name. Those are what keep us safe until the Day of Christ’s appearing.
Things will never be as quite as bad as they were in the days of persecution in the first centuries of the Church. Jesus says that the distress of those days in Jerusalem will never again be equaled again in the history of the earth. If those days had not been shortened, there would have been no Church left on earth – no Gospel, no sacraments, and no believers in Christ.
God watches over His children. He guards and protects His Christians and will not let His Church be wiped out. For the sake of His elect children, God puts a limit and a boundary on the persecution of His people. He will not let us be tested beyond our limits, but will see us through to the Last Day. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Though we may suffer for a while, we will be restored and we will rejoice in the end. God orders everything for our good and our blessing, even if now it appears to be that He is doing the opposite.
Jesus prepares His disciples with a cold dose of reality. He tells them ahead of time how things will be. They are to face the future neither with fear nor with fantasy, but with sober watchfulness and prayer. The end times will be times of false teaching and false teachers. The Church will suffer desecration. Just as the Jerusalem temple suffered the intrusion of idolatry, so the Church must put up with false teachers who would lure people away from Jesus and His gifts toward false Christs and false hopes complete with false signs and wonders.
There will be those who claim the real Christ is out in the wilderness, or that He is in some secret, hidden room that only they are privileged to know. We’ve seen these types of people and there will be more to come. Jesus said, false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders. They appeared already in the time of Saint Paul.
Saint Paul wrote to Saint Timothy that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. He also said the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
The early church had the Gnostics, those who believed they had special revelation from God that no one else had. Martin Luther had to deal with Enthusiasts or Schwärmerei as he called them, those who believe that God works directly through people or things and not through means. We have Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and contemporary Gnosticism called “New Age spirituality.” We have people who claim contact with the dead and with spirits, which is nothing else that worship of demons. We have faith healers and false prophets everywhere, those who claim that uncontrolled giggling is a sign of the Holy Spirit, or the likes of Joel Osteen who take advantage of the sick and weak, who teach that if you believe firmly enough in God nothing bad will ever happen to you.
If anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “There he is!” do not believe it. Even if he comes with an array of impressive signs and wonders, don’t believe it. Every religion has signs and wonders. Not everything that works is necessarily from God. Just because you see the dead raised and the sick healed doesn’t mean that God is at work. The devil is “God’s ape.” He looks like the “real thing” and mimics miracles. Signs and wonders mean nothing unless they point you to the One Who hung dead on a cross for you and to the Word that delivers His death and life and applies it to you.
Jesus prepares His disciples. He warns them of false prophets, false signs and wonders, false Christs, so that they will not be deceived. He will not permit His elect children to be misled or deceived. He arms them with His Word, Baptism, and Supper. These are the true signs and wonders of the end times. What greater miracle is there than the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism? What greater wonder is there than the body and blood of Jesus truly distributed under the forms of bread and wine? What greater sign of God’s love is there than the forgiveness of sins spoken in Jesus’ name?
We so desperately want to see what God is up to, to sneak a peek behind the curtain, but there is nothing now for us to see. Now is the time of hearing. The time of seeing comes at the end. Then Jesus will be seen, like a flash of lightning crossing the sky from east to west. Every eye will see Him then. Every tongue will confess Him Lord. Even those who denied Him in this life will see and confess the object of their denial on that Day.
Jesus prepares us today toward that Day. He comes to us today to prepare us for His coming on the Last Day. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. That’s good news for the end times, good news only as Jesus can deliver it. Out of death, there comes life. The birds of prey gather around a carcass to feed on death and live. One died so that others might live.
The Church that lives in the in-between time, the time between Jesus’ first appearing in humility and His second appearing in glory, is a Church gathered around His death. That’s why the crucifix is the highest symbol of our Christian faith. It is gory, disturbing, and to some even morbid. Some prefer an empty cross. No death, no body, and no blood. But to the Church that lives in the expectation of the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, that blessed death of Jesus on the cross is our life. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit