In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It has been astounding to witness the rapidity with which a particular topic has come to dominate the news and information outlets over the last couple of weeks. The accusations of “sexual misconduct” against celebrities and politicians have come like a torrent or an avalanche, followed in some cases by admissions of guilt or half-hearted pseudo-apologies, and in other cases by denials of guilt, claims of innocence. Still more accusers come forward, and recriminations and investigations into both accusers and accused start flying around. Think back three or four weeks ago. Was this topic at the forefront? Was it really that big in the news at all on a national scale?
How do such things become major concerns and major public issues so quickly? Is it the “new media,” online and social media outlets? The speed and stealth with which such matters can consume the public’s attention can seem like the Apostle Paul’s description of the coming of the Day of the Lord: “like a thief in the night.” It comes upon you suddenly, without warning. When accusations fly fast and furious, false accusations are bound to be made against the innocent, and they get caught in the dragnet with the guilty, their lives and reputations ruined, perhaps beyond repair. Such times call for a reminder of the Eighth Commandment, and for some other words from Paul: “let us keep awake and be sober,” and from last Sunday’s Epistle, “we do not want you to be uninformed, ignorant, unknowing” (1 Th 4:13). There is a lot of information out there—some good, a great deal of it useless, or worse—from all manner of sources, some reliable, others decidedly not. A lot of information, but not a lot of knowledge, and even less wisdom. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel and sermon, Jesus calls for us to be wise, that is, to hold fast to Him in true faith, and St. Paul also calls us to be wise as we see the Day of the Lord approaching.
There is a lot of alarming news out there. It’s meant to alarm you, to scare the daylights out of you, to shake you up, maybe move you to action—and if you fail to act, then you should despair! For WOE, great woe, shall surely come upon you! I receive emails warning of “the end of the dollar,” imminent financial collapse, the impending failure of the electric grid, North Korea starting a nuclear war, the destruction of our food supply … and on and on the list goes. This started long before email; the particulars have changed. Now we can and should exercise appropriate caution and concern; that’s called prudence and wisdom. To be concerned about mounting debt, whether public or your own, is prudent, and may lead you to act. It seems, though, that just about everything has taken on dire, apocalyptic overtones lately. It’s not just some kook wearing a sandwich board that reads “The End Is Near.” Now it might as well be a social media “hashtag.” In college football, every loss is a potential major setback, possibly even spelling doom for a team’s whole season. Every election result is sure to spell disaster—unless your candidate wins, in which case salvation has come. Some folks even worry that doom will come if they don’t stop certain actions, words, thoughts, and feelings which they deem offensive from being expressed.
Now if we listen to the Prophet Zephaniah as we heard him in today’s Old Testament Reading, then it does sound all “doom and gloom”: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the Day of the Lord is near … Their goods shall be plundered and their houses laid waste. … the sound of the Day of the Lord is bitter … A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of darkness and gloom” (Zeph 1:7, 12, 14–15). And last Sunday we heard a very similar warning from the Prophet Amos:
“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20)
Do these warnings frighten you and put the fear of the Lord in you? Well, good; they’re Law, and that’s what the Law is supposed to do. The Law hits us where we’re comfortable, nails us with our self-satisfaction, catches us in our complacency. With the voice of His Law the Lord says, “I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will He do ill’” (Zeph 1:12). One thing to note here is the attitude of the complacent, for which the Lord will judge and punish them. They think of Him as complacent as they, a laissez faire, hands-off kind of God: He “will not do good, nor will He do ill.” He’s watching us from a distance, but not really involved in or concerned with human affairs. We can do and say as we please. Another thing to note is who is the one acting. Over the years there have been those who declare that we, the human race, will somehow bring about the end of the world by our action or inaction. “I will punish,” says the Lord. It is His doing, and it will be His Day, the Day of the Lord. It will be at the time which God the Father has appointed for the Son to return in power and glory to judge the living and the dead. It is, like the rest of our salvation and redemption, His work alone and not ours, not dependent on us in the least little bit.
Having us hear and understand that the Day of the Lord will be a day of darkness and gloom and judgment, God the Holy Spirit is working to keep us from being complacent and self-satisfied. As we declare not just on Reformation but every day, we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ and His atoning work alone. That’s Luther, and that’s Scripture. And we are saved in Christ for good works, “that we should walk in them.” That too is Luther, and that is certainly also Scripture. The good works we do are not so that we can be saved, but because we are saved. The good works are those which help and serve our neighbor out of love for the neighbor. This is the faithful servanthood and stewardship which Jesus describes in today’s Gospel reading.
That servanthood, that doing of works of love for the neighbor, is of course not by your own power and will to accomplish. It is the gift of God, by His grace. It is how He shows forth His light in you to this world of darkness and sin. “You are children of light, children of the day.” Jesus says, “I AM the Light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). He also says to you, His disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). As He is the Light, so we who through Holy Baptism are reborn and remade in His image and likeness are lights, His light in this dark world. Does it feel like the darkness is surrounding you and about to overcome you? Remember: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). If shining in the darkness depended on you, then yes, your light would be overcome; but, it depends on Him, and He has overcome even the darkness of death by His suffering and dying and rising again.
In some of those “doom and gloom” emails, and even in some supposedly serious, scholarly articles and books, someone will say, with concern or even alarm, “Saint Paul believed that Jesus would return in his lifetime” or “Jesus’ disciples believed that He would return in their lifetime.” And to add a bit of Reformation spice to the mix, “Luther believed that Jesus would return in his lifetime.” I’ve even seen this question: “Was Jesus wrong about how soon the end of the world would come?” To that, we can confidently say, “No. Don’t be silly.” To those other statements, we say, “Good for Paul, the disciples, and Luther! That is what every Christian should believe.” Jesus will come again, as He has promised, and it could be today. He simply tells us, and Paul reminds us, “Be awake, be watchful, be ready.” There is a word which Paul uses for Jesus’ coming, found in 1 Thessalonians 4. It’s parousia. Like so many other things associated with the End Times, much has been written about it, speculations promulgated, and times calculated. A lot of that is unnecessary and even destructive of true faith. For the true understanding is much simpler. The word parousia is the Greek equivalent of the Latin adventus, from which we get Advent. In ancient Rome, it referred to a visit from the emperor to a city. The word parousia has another meaning, though. From the parts, para “beside” and ousios “being,” “being beside,” parousia means presence. When and where will Jesus be present again? Right here, at His altar-table, and every time His Supper is celebrated, He is present in His body and blood with you, for you. Here is His Parousia, His Real Presence, His Coming again in grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, and love. He then sends you, fed with His Real Presence, to be His presence, His hands and feet and voice, before the world.
On the 19th of November, today, the Church remembers one of His servants who did just that (and this one is listed in LSB). The numerous “St. Elizabeth’s Hospitals” throughout the world are for the most part named, not for the biblical Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, but for Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary, daughter of King Andrew II and his Bavarian wife, Queen Gertrude. Elizabeth married Ludwig IV, Landgrave of Thuringia. She was concerned for the relief of the poor and the sick, and with her husband’s consent she used her dowry money for their relief. During a famine and epidemic in 1226, while her husband was away in Italy, she sold her jewels and established a hospital at the Wartburg Castle—that’s right, the same place where [three hundred years later] Luther translated the Scriptures into German for the sake of the people. There at Wartburg Elizabeth nursed the sick and opened the royal granaries to feed the hungry. After her husband’s death in 1227, her in-laws, who opposed her “extravagances,” expelled her from Wartburg. Finally an arrangement was negotiated with them that gave her a stipend. She [became a Franciscan lay associate and] devoted the remainder of her life to nursing and charity. She sewed garments to clothe the poor, and went fishing to feed them. Thanks be to God for both of His faithful and devoted servants who lived and worked at the Wartburg [though separated by three centuries]. And the Lord grant us to be so filled with His Word and Spirit, His presence, and His love that, as we eagerly await the Day of His coming, we may like those servants be “extravagant” with both His Word and His provision through our works to our neighbor, every one in need of Him, both the neighbor out there, and the neighbor in here with you.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.