Monday, November 26, 2007

Looking Forward to the Last Day Through the Cross - Luke 23:27-43

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The subject of "last things" doesn't come up much in our day-to-day life, even as individual Christians. We find ourselves taken a little off guard whenever we hear our Lord reveal some of the details of that last and fateful day. There's just something about our old nature that keeps the subject at bay, until we have to somehow deal with its unexpected intrusion into our lives: maybe it's a horrific story in the newspaper or on the six o'clock news; the death of a loved one, the sudden threat from a natural catastrophe, friends discussing the latest "end of the world" prediction. We don't want to talk about it, but when we do, all kinds of concerns and questions start coming out.
A recent survey of questions sent in to the denominational headquarters of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod testify to the wide variety of anxieties we have about the Last Day. "Will our spirit be resurrected, or both our spirit and body?" "How many levels of heaven are there, and what level will I attain on the Last Day?" "What will happen to my pet goldfish on the Last Day?" "Are believers asleep until Christ's return?" "What age will those who are resurrected be?" and the infamous, "If believers are raptured on the Last Day, what happens to the passengers on city buses and airplanes piloted by Christians?"
With so many concerns, it is no wonder that from the earliest times, the Christian Church has observed a Church Year that begins with the First Sunday in Advent and concludes 52 weeks later with the Sunday of the Fulfillment: the last word God's redeemed on earth has been given to annually proclaim and sing and confess.
The early Christian Church got into the habit (a good habit) of reminding itself of the Last Day every time believers came together around altar and pulpit, lectern and font, through the liturgy, through the hymns, through the readings and sermon, and, especially, through the Creed and the "Our Father," the Lord's Prayer.
That good tradition is followed today every time we as a congregation confess to God and one another, "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."
That's the confession of a God-given faith, in the same way we plead to our merciful God to preserve us and keep us until eternal life when we pray to our father in heaven, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
In this way we are regularly, weekly, daily being prepared for the Day that will surely come: the great and awesome Day of the Lord, the glorious Day of the Lord of Sabaoth (the heavenly armies), the Final Day of Judgment, the Day of the Fulfillment.
We can doubt about it and we can refuse to believe it, but the final Day will surely come. Nothing can hurry it along; nothing can stop it; nothing can delay it. When the time is just right, God will usher in the Last Day, in order that all things might be fulfilled in his exalted Son.
But, if the Last Day is the Day of the Fulfillment, two questions need to be asked this morning. One you might be asking yourself, another you may not, but both need to be asked and answered. The first: "What will be fulfilled? What actually will be completed?" And, the second question: "Who got the church bulletin covers mixed up? I thought the cover might depict turkey or tinsle, but instead, we got something left over from Good Friday. What's up with that?"
But, the first question first. "What is being fulfilled on the Last Day?"
I use to hear a lot of sermons about the proper object of our faith being two Christ-events: the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and along with it, the Second Coming. "Keep you eyes of faith on both." the pastor would say. Well, I couldn't figure out how to train one of my eyes on the Cross outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, while straining my other eye into the future, on a future event that may happen this afternoon or a few thousand years from now.
Yes, these are the two history-defining events for each of us as Christians. The atonement for each of us and for the whole world at the Cross of Christ, and the fulfillment of our salvation on the Last Day of Christ. But short of employing a complex set of interconnected mirrors and neck stretching exercises, how do we keep our faith, our attention, our focus steadily on both?
The answer was re-discovered and applied to the new three year set of Scripture readings we began to enjoy a year ago as we dedicated our new hymnals. The answer is to be found in our "couldn't-be-more-appropriate for the Last Sunday of the Church Year" Scripture reading from the 23rd chapter of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke:
And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at [Jesus], saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:35-43 ESV)
"Oh." you say. I'm beginning to see the connection now. It's all there at Calvary. It's all there with Christ beginning his reign as King and Lord and Redeemer from, of all places, a cross. Here he holds court in the kingdom of grace and mercy and forgiveness. It is here that the true window into understanding the Last Day is to be found.
In the midst of mocking and jeering and open rebellion against God and his Anointed, the truth is, unknowingly, shouted out from the top of the hill. Jesus — God's Chosen One — cannot save himself, precisely because he is saving others in the offering up of his very life.
In his sacrificial suffering, the punishment that was upon us is taken up by the Lord of the heavenly hosts. In his substitutionary death, the condemnation that justly awaited each of us on the Last Day was taken up by the one who had done nothing wrong: the spotless Lamb of God.
This is the saving work only the King from Heaven could complete. This is the redeeming mission of the Christ, the Messiah, God's Anointed One: to graciously offer the gift of a restored heaven to all who would look to him as the payment for our sin; as the fulfillment of an age of redemption that began with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and will end when the last of God's redeemed children receives by faith the revelation of the prophets and apostles: receives the great Good News that all has been won by Christ on the Cross.
There is a proper way we can (as we should) keep our eyes upon the Christ of the Cross and the Christ who will come again in all glory to end these last days — the last days that began with the advent of Jesus in Bethlehem and Jerusalem two millennia ago. You see, we can only get a proper focus on the Last Day through the one, salvation-defining event of the whole of human history: Christ the verdict-giving King enthroned high and lifted up — between two sinners.
This is the crucial element that is missing from the bulk of any discussions we might have about the Last Day. Outside of the lens of the Cross, any talk of the great and awesome Day of the Lord will bring only fear, excuses, denial or despair.
The Son of God and Mary's Son upon the Cross as your sacrifice and the world's Savior. This is the proper lens through which we read the prophets and apostles. This is the proper measuring stick by which we measure any sermon, hymn, Bible study, devotional or ministry. This is the one key that brings into focus not only the Lord's precious Supper as a "foretaste of the feast to come," but the true meaning and weight and effect of the holy waters of Baptism, as they bind us to Christ's glorious return, and his glorious resurrection from the dead, by binding us to his most holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death.
Christ loved us — and the world — so much that he took upon himself on the Tree the horrors of the fearful Day of Judgment. At Golgotha God reveals what we were freed from on the Last Day, the terrible day of God's judgment and wrath. What is now being bestowed on us in, with, and under the ordinary-looking means of grace (the Holy Bible, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion) will be openly revealed to the entire creation on the Last Day.
Christ paid for all. And for those who believe in Jesus as the Passover Lamb, the Pillar of Fire and the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness, the fulfillment of all signs and wonders and prophecies and promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the great and terrible Day of the Lord has become a day that we no longer fear, but actually look forward to.
Christ's love for all condemned law-breakers freely placed him upon the Cross. Bearing a crown of thorns and the title "King of God's Chosen People" above him, our Lord of the heavenly hosts says to you: "Truly, truly I say to you: in me — baptized into what I have done in your stead — the "verdict" that is yours now, and will be yours on the Day of the final judgment is: beloved and acquitted child of Paradise restored. We pray:
Almighty God, by the death of your Son Jesus Christ you destroyed death; by his rest in the tomb you sanctified the graves of your saints, and by his bodily resurrection you brought life and immortality to light. Receive our thanks for the victory Christ has won for us, bestowed through the holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper and received by the hand of faith. Keep us in everlasting communion with all who wait for his appearing when he comes on the Last Day in all his glory to bring to completion all he has graciously promised his own, for he is the resurrection and the life, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen