Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 20, 2011
“Then Comes the End” (1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46)
Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year. The church year mirrors the life of Christ and the course of history, and so, naturally enough, as we come to the end of the church year, the lessons and themes of the last few Sundays concern the last things, the end times, and the return of Christ the King. So it is today. The Propers of the Day, the Introit, Collect, and Gradual; the Readings, the Old Testament, Epistle, and Holy Gospel; the hymns, “The Clouds of Judgment Gather” and the rest–all of these elements of the service combine to focus our attention on the end of this age as we know it, which is approaching, and for which we need to be ready. And so our theme this morning, to use a line from 1 Corinthians: “Then Comes the End.”
“Then comes the end.” When comes the end? That we do not know. As we said last week, date-setting is not possible. No man knows the day or hour. But what will happen when the end comes–that we do know. The Bible tells us. There is a cluster of things that will take place. Our lessons today get at them: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and, for the righteous, entering into eternal life.
These things are summed up nicely for us in the Creeds, aren’t they? As we just confessed in the Apostles’ Creed: “From thence (that is, from the right hand of God) He (that is, Christ) will come to judge the living and the dead.” And, later in the Creed, we note the phrases, “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” These, then, are the things that we’re talking about today, what will happen at “the end.”
“Then comes the end.” We hear the term, “the end,” and we think “the cessation of the story.” That’s it, things come to an abrupt halt, there is no more. It’s like things are going along, and you suddenly run out of tape, and the screen goes black. The end. But here the term has a lot more to it than that. “The end”–the “telos,” that’s the Greek word here–means “the goal,” the destination to be reached. History is moving toward a goal, you see. This is not just a random series of events with no purpose or direction. God is moving things toward a goal, even though we may not see how he is doing that. But we are going somewhere. There is an end purpose to all of the seeming craziness that is life in this world. God is in charge, and he has a plan.
And this is a plan for our good. The end that God has in sight is ultimately for our blessing and benefit. This is good stuff we’re talking about today, all of it–Christ’s Second Coming, our being raised from the dead, the final judgment, our being welcomed into eternal life–this is our hope, my friends. This is what we’re looking forward to. Lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.
For you see, everything associated with the end is centered on our Savior, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. These events that will come to pass at Christ’s Second Coming are simply the end result, the outcome, of Christ’s first coming. What Jesus accomplished by coming in the flesh 2,000 years ago and suffering and dying for our sake–the results of all that will come to fruition and reach their consummation when Jesus comes again at the Last Day.
This is why we have nothing to fear about the end. Indeed, this is why we look forward with excitement and expectation as we think about what will take place when the end comes. Jesus makes it so.
Think about what he has done for us to make us ready for his return. You and I were lost in our sins, with only death and the grave and the fires of hell looming before us. That prospect is the truly terrifying one. But Christ came to undo all that. Jesus came to reverse the curse, to save us from ourselves and rescue us from God’s wrath. The Son of God came in the flesh and lived among us, calling men to repentance and faith, calling us to follow him, the only way out of our death trap. We could not rescue ourselves; God had to do it.
And so Christ came, revealing God to us as the God of mercy, our kind and loving heavenly Father. God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, set his face to go to the cross, where he would pay the price to cover our sins and win the righteousness we need to stand before God on the Day of Judgment. Then Jesus rose again on the third day, to show that death could not hold him, that the Father accepted the perfect sacrifice he made, and that life is the result of what Jesus has done.
So the cross and resurrection of Christ at his first coming is the basis for our hope at the Second Coming, when the end comes. Trust in him and you will be all right–literally, all right, right in body and soul, right with God, right forever. It all depends on Christ.
Thus, when he returns, it all comes to light, the results of what he has done. At the return of Christ will be the resurrection of the dead. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”
You see here that what happens at the Second Coming hinges on Christ’s first coming. Christ rose from the dead–that happened on Easter morning–and therefore we who belong to Christ will be raised from the dead when he returns. Christ is the firstfruits. “Firstfruits” means there’s more to come. Jesus leads the way, and we follow. He rose, conquering death for us. We too will rise, for he shares his victory with us. You and I have been joined to Jesus and his resurrection in our baptism.
Do you realize that Christ has redeemed your body? I mean this old bag of bones that is falling apart and racked with aches and pains, this mortal body that is subject to disease and death. God is going to do something new with your body, long after it has been laid in the grave. At Christ’s return, the trumpet will sound and Christ will raise you up, whole and complete and better than ever. I don’t know exactly what that will look like in every respect. The Bible doesn’t tell us. But I do know that you will be you, and that you will have a body, and that that body will no longer be subject to all that ails you now. It will be glorious, in fact, fitted out for eternity.
The return of Christ. The resurrection of the dead. The final judgment. The reading from Matthew 25 gives us a picture of that. Christ the King on his throne. The sheep and the goats gathered before him, that is, the righteous and the cursed. There will be a division, a separation, a sorting out at that time. And the difference will be faith or unbelief. On the one hand, Christ will welcome in the sheep, that is, those who have faith in him–a genuine, living faith, which will have produced works of mercy in life as its natural fruit. On the other hand, the goats–that is, those who had rejected God’s only appointed Savior–they will be judged because they had no faith in Christ and thus had no faith-produced works. It’s not that our works save us, no. But by God’s grace you and I have been given the gift of faith in Christ, and that faith will naturally produce good works in our lives.
You have this faith, don’t you, dear Christian? You are not trusting in yourself for salvation, for that would be a dead end. You know your sins would condemn you. But rather you trust in Christ, the one God sent to save you. Kept in this faith by the Holy Spirit, growing in this faith as the Word and Sacrament sustain you, your life will produce works of love and mercy done in Christ. And this is what will be cited as you stand before the throne of judgment. Not your sins–they have been forgotten, nowhere in sight or memory. Only the good works you have done, the product and evidence of a living faith.
Dear friends, you have nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment. Christ has taken care of that. Your judge is also your Savior. For us, that day will be a blessed day of welcome, of homecoming, of entering into the eternal kingdom God has prepared for us. Joyful, that!
And so, when the end comes, that will be only the beginning. Death is destroyed. Eternal life opens before us. Home at last, safe and secure with our Shepherd in our midst. What a day that will be! All the company of heaven, gathered together, alive and joyful, praising God and enjoying perfect peace and fellowship. The grandest worship you will have ever heard. And you and I will be singing in the choir, our voices blending in sweet harmony. I can’t imagine how good it will be–only that it will be!
“Then will come the end.” And the end, the goal, the place where all this is heading, is the glory of God. Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, having accomplished everything he set out to do. Christ will have destroyed death, resulting in our glorious, bodily resurrection. Christ will declare us righteous by faith and welcome us into his eternal kingdom. What this does is give all the glory to God. God has done it all. “Then will come the end,” which is, “that God may be all in all.” When that day comes, when Christ returns and we are raised and welcomed into eternal life, then God’s perfect plan will have reached its goal . . . The End.