Praying always to be counted worthy

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Sermon for Populus Sion – Advent 2

Micah 4:1-7  +  Romans 15:4-13  +  Luke 21:25-36

Christ is coming! But not in humility, as He came the first time, humble, lowly, despised and rejected. Christ is coming! But not to earn salvation for anyone, as He did when He came the first time, when He came to suffer at the hands of men and shed His blood as the atonement price for our sins. Christ is coming! But not to call men to repentance, or to forgive anyone his sins, or to bring anyone into His kingdom. That’s what this time is for, in between His first and His second coming. Because when He comes with the clouds, with power and great glory, the day of grace will come to an end. All things will be destroyed, and most people will be locked out of His glorious kingdom and cast into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Is it important to be ready for His Advent? I would say so.

Does God, in fact, want for you to be ready on that day? Very much so. That’s why He tells you about it and reminds you of it over and over again, if you’re listening to His voice, that is, to His Word. One way in which God intends to keep us in a constant state of readiness is by surrounding us with signs that foretell His coming, signs that are there for the sole purpose of reminding God’s people to keep watch, to continue steadfast in the faith, to persevere through this often difficult life, and to not be led astray while we wait. How tragic that would be—to spend your whole life preparing for Christ’s coming, only to fall away as the hour grows late.

So Christ told His disciples to look for a number of signs leading up to His coming, signs that would be like spring blossoms and budding leaves on the trees, reminding you every time you look at them that summer is coming, just around the corner.

In Luke’s Gospel we hear Jesus tell His disciples of signs in the heavens, in the sun, moon and stars. Those seem to be the final signs before the coming of Christ. A few verses earlier Luke mentions other signs, as do Matthew and Mark. First, before the stars fall from the sky, there will be signs like wars and rumors of wars—nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. Have you been paying attention to ISIS? Russia? North Korea? China? There will be signs including earthquakes in various places. Do you realize that there have been, on average, about 14,000 earthquakes per year for the last ten years? There will be signs including famines. We hardly know what famines are in the United States, but did you know that some 70 million people around the world have died due to famine in the last 100 years? There will be a roaring and tossing of the sea. How long ago was the last tsunami or hurricane? There will be signs like pestilences—think AIDS, Ebola, West Nile virus, flu, even cancer. There will be the sign of the persecution of Christians, both from the secular realm and also from within the Church. There will be false christs and false prophets performing signs and wonders, deceiving many, so that many fall away from the faith. And here you might think lately of any number of false prophets, from the pope, to Joel Osteen, to Glenn Beck, to Jon Buchholz. And then there’s that one pleasant sign that Jesus gives, that in spite of all the turmoil on the earth and the opposition to the true Church, the Gospel will be preached in all the nations. And that continues to happen.

So many signs, like budding leaves on a fig tree. And yet, they’re all signs that can be ignored easily enough, or explained away, or quickly forgotten. And that is why, as Jesus says, life will be going on as usual on the earth right up until the day of His coming. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. The signs will be there—the signs are mostly here already, everywhere you look. But the unbelieving world won’t interpret them correctly.

What about Christians? What about you? Jesus doesn’t want you to be caught off guard like the rest of the world. And so He warns you in the Gospel: But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. Specifically what does Jesus warn against here? Letting your hearts be weighed down with carousing (partying), drunkenness, and cares of this life. Now, maybe you’re not a partyer or maybe you’re not interested in drinking too much, but those cares of this life—you all know about those cares and how they tend to take over your thinking and your planning and your time. If your heart is weighed down by those things, then it will not be interested in things like hearing and learning God’s Word, serving your neighbor, leading holy lives according to God’s commandments and according to your vocation, as outlined in the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism.

Turmoil and suffering on the one hand, cares and pleasures of earthly life on the other hand—these things threaten your faith. If you’re not paying attention, you will get so caught up in these things that you will not stop to think, maybe I need to repent. Maybe I need to stop living how I’m living. Maybe I need to go confess my sins and receive absolution. Maybe I need to rearrange my life so that Christ and His Word are restored as my first priority, my first love.

The truth is, most people will not be prepared for Christ’s coming, For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Only the worthy will escape. Only the worthy will be able to stand before Christ on that day. As Jesus says, Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.

Uncomfortable, isn’t it? You wanted Jesus to say, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to be worthy.” Or, “Don’t worry. You will always be worthy, no matter what.” But He doesn’t say that, does He? Even to His own apostles. That’s why St. Paul himself says this: But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

It is not a sinless life that makes someone worthy to stand before Christ, nor good deeds, nor works of love. It is faith alone in Christ the Redeemer that makes a person worthy to stand before the Son of Man on the day of His appearing. Faith—the sinner’s appeal to Christ’s mercy alone for refuge and forgiveness. But Jesus asked the rhetorical question earlier in Luke’s Gospel, “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” He will, of course, find faith—faith which His own Spirit created and sustained through His Means of Grace. But it won’t be nearly as widespread a phenomenon as one might think. Look at our own membership, even since the WELS group left. How many have stopped coming to church? How many have gone off in pursuit of false doctrine or simply given in to the cares of this life? How many have denied the faith?

What, then? Are we at the mercy of fate? Are we helpless against this falling away from faith into impenitence and unworthiness? Far from it! The Helper—the Holy Spirit—is still among us, still active, still working through the Word as it is preached, heard, and meditated upon. Will some terrible temptation come along that you won’t be able to endure? Never! As Paul says, God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

But we can learn from St. Paul’s example. What does it mean that he “disciplined his body and brought it into subjection”? He practiced self-discipline. He set aside time for prayer. He likely fasted, among other things. The flesh demands instant gratification in all things. But the spiritual person knows that the flesh needs to be subdued and tamed like a wild animal, or else the wild beast will get out and do damage to yourself and to others. So practice self-discipline. Set aside time for prayer and meditation on God’s Word in order to prepare for Christ’s coming.

That’s Jesus Himself telling you that: Pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. Pray always, and not just for earthly things. Pray that you may be preserved in the holy faith all the way up to the coming of Christ. Attend to God’s promises, and to the Means by which He promises to fulfill those promises—Word and Sacrament, Word and Sacrament.

And don’t worry that your prayers will go unfulfilled. God is faithful. He hears your prayers. He has brought you into fellowship with His beloved Son through Baptism and faith and has promised you an inheritance in the new heavens and the new earth. So keep watch. Christ will come. The signs are being fulfilled all around us. Watch for them. Be warned by them, but also be comforted by them, because things are turning out just as Jesus said they would. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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