The Last Sunday of the Church Year: Prepared for Our Lord’s Return

Wise and Foolish Virgins
Only the five virgins who brought enough oil are allowed into the wedding banquet. (Matt. 25:1-13). From a book publishing Martin Luther’s House Postils (sermons), 1550.

Lessons: Isaiah 65:17-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:1-13
Hymns: LSB 514, 516, 508, 672, 515

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      Today we will focus on our Epistle lesson—the first letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Church in Thessalonica. He usually wrote his letters to address various issues facing the local congregation, and this letter is no exception. It is believed that his letters had their desired effect. God’s people were encouraged in the faith, grew in the Word, corrected false beliefs, and continued to rejoice in the salvation they have received through their Savior, Jesus.

      Even though the epistles in the Bible were written for a certain time in a certain context, this does not make them merely historical documents. Instead, they teach us God’s unchanging, saving Word. The Scriptures are living and active, and the Holy Spirit is at work whenever the Bible is read, taught, preached, and heard. The Bible is our book, and it tells us our story of salvation in Christ. It is important for us Christians to be in the Word.

      That’s why I am introducing three ways for us to be in the Word during the upcoming Advent season. First (and the one I’d like to see the most), let’s all read the Gospel of Matthew during Advent. Next, I want you all to work at learning a Bible verse every week. And finally, let’s follow a simple Advent devotion which focuses on a hymn and Bible verses. All of this is detailed in our December newsletter.

      Today is the Last Sunday in the Church Year. Next week is the first Sunday of the new Church Year—a year of grace to hear God’s Word. The Church Year has been developed over the last two thousand years. While the Church Year considers the Old Testament seasons and festivals, it mainly follows the life and works of our Lord Jesus Christ. After all, we receive the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and everlasting salvation only through Christ Jesus our Lord. The Church Year begins with Advent as a season of preparation as we hear of the three comings of Christ. The Church Year ends by hearing of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, today’s theme focuses on the Last Day, or Judgment Day, that we are to be ready to meet Him when He comes in glory. The only way we can be ready is when the Holy Spirit works faith in us, which only happens through the Word of God.

      St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, in part, to answer questions they had about the return of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Last Day. He wrote to the Thessalonians to comfort them. You see, St. Paul was the first one to bring the Gospel to the Thessalonians. This is recorded in Acts 17. The city of Thessalonica was along a major trade route and, with 200,000 residents, it was considered to be a rather important city in the Roman Empire. There had been Jews living in that city for quite some time who had established a synagogue. When St. Paul and Silas arrived, they proclaimed Christ crucified and risen in Thessalonica for three weeks. Some Jews were converted to Christianity. Many Greeks were also converted. But many Jews were not convinced and, rejecting Paul’s teachings, they started a mob to attack Christians. Paul and Silas escaped at night and went to Berea.

      The Bereans were much more reasonable. They searched the Scriptures and saw that Jesus truly fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. However, when the Thessalonian Jews who rejected Jesus heard that Paul was in Berea, they came after him. Paul then traveled throughout Greece. While in the Greek city of Corinth, he wrote back to the Christians in Thessalonica to give them comfort of the Gospel. He was joyous, relieved, and thankful over the Thessalonians because he had heard through Timothy the Christian church continued there despite fierce Jewish opposition.

      While the Christian Thessalonians had been firm in their faith in the midst of the persecution they endured from the Jews, they were troubled by some things. One had to do with a question about the dead. What happens to those who die before our Lord returns on Judgment Day? Would they be lost or saved?

      So Paul addressed their concern. He says all believers who died will be raised from the dead when Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. They shall always be with the Lord. They are with Him now and will continue to be with Him to all eternity.

      But when will that Day come and how will we know Jesus has come? Can it be that we will miss His return and miss the boat? No. For St. Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). In summary, Jesus will return with a shout, the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God! The dead will be raised! Believers will be caught up together with the Lord! Obviously, everyone will know when this is happening.

      But when will it happen? Today’s epistle teaches that Jesus will come as a thief in the night—unexpectedly. Jesus says, “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt 24:44). Jesus also declares, “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Did you catch that? Not even the Son knows! Only the Father knows when Jesus will return. Even though only the Father knows when Jesus will return, many people keep on making predictions, which is wrong of them. It is foolish to take a bunch of numbers in the Bible and do a bunch of math and come up with a return date of Jesus. If only the Father knows, the Spirit cannot leave clues for us to figure it out. Yet, ever since Jesus ascended into heaven people have been trying to predict the return of Jesus.

      The Thessalonians thought Jesus would be coming back soon, so many stopped working. In fact, Paul wrote II Thessalonians, telling them to get back to work. For Jesus was not coming back as quickly as they thought. He warned them against idleness, writing, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

      Paul also warned the Thessalonians not to engage in acts of darkness, which would prevent them from being ready for our Lord’s return. In doing so, Paul even warns us today. For in our day, many shun the Word of God. Many dismiss the Law and, in doing so, also dismiss the saving Gospel. Many are trying to diminish the danger of engaging in sin. Many go so far as to redefine sin, and proudly celebrate it. When we begin to assert that things are no longer sinful, the result is that we figure the Gospel is no longer needed. And when the Gospel is not needed, Christ and His Word are also not needed.

      Many today feel that gossip, cohabitation, drunkenness, lust, and using God’s name in vain are no longer sins. Many feel that they may do them without repentance. This is precisely what Paul warns against in today’s Epistle. He warns against self-security. Many will declare “Peace and security” and then sudden destruction will come upon them. Even as many say, “Go ahead; it doesn’t matter,” God will still issue His judgments against such sin. And they will not escape.

      Instead, let us live with Christ as baptized children of God. For our identity has changed. We have died to sin; we walk in newness of life. As children of God, we have put on the breastplate of faith and love. We believe in Christ and love Him. We love our neighbors. We comfort and edify one another with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

      We live this way our entire lives—until our Savior returns.

      For someday Jesus will return. It will be a good and comforting day for us Christians. For He will judge us not guilty, acquitting us of our sin. He has removed our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. He has forgiven our iniquities and remembers our sins no more. He is for us and not against us. This is all so because Jesus came the first time for us in which He rendered the ransom payment for our sins by shedding His Blood on the cross. All sin is paid for. And death and the grave could not contain Him; He rose triumphantly from the dead that first Easter morning. His resurrection serves as the first fruits to our own resurrection. For on the Last Day, God will raise all dead and give all who believe in Christ immortal, incorruptible, and glorious bodies. And we shall always be with the Lord. This is a great comfort.

      And so, we must always be ready for His return, or when He calls us home. Just as we do not know when we will breathe our last breath, so also we do not know when Jesus will return. So be ready. Do not think you can engage in all manner of vice and then repent of them in your dying moments. God sees through such hypocrisy and unbelief. And plus, many have not received that chance to repent due to sudden death, and many will not receive that chance due to our Lord’s sudden return. We never expect a thief to come in the night. We never expect calamity to happen. But that is how Paul describes our Lord’s return. He will come unexpectedly. He will come when many are focused on themselves, rather than focusing on Christ. He will come when there is much apostasy and fear. He will come when many are not ready.

      But do not be afraid. Be of good cheer. Lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near. Jesus is for you. He loves you. He shepherds you. He died for you. He gives you His Word of salvation and promise. He gives you His Body and Blood to eat and to drink for your forgiveness. For if you are ready to receive Him in the Sacrament, you are also ready to meet Him when He returns. This readiness only comes about when we are in His glorious and saving Word of God.

      Therefore, come Lord Jesus! Make us ready for Your return. Amen.  

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen