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- Isaiah 64:1–9
- Psalm 80:1–7
- 1 Corinthians 1:3–9
- Mark 11:1–10
- Mark 13:24–37
It is always darkest before the dawn, and things in our society certainly seem quite dark right now. We live in an apostate nation in an apostate time, and matters are certainly not — presently — trending upward. We undoubtedly commiserate with the psalmist in today’s reading:
»O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.«
We are flooded with images and stories of suffering, depredation, and outrageous sin on a nearly constant basis. The misery rectangle in almost everyone’s pocket — or maybe even in your hand — hardly makes matters better. Our culture is full to overflowing with sins — open and notorious — that would make Sodom and Gomorrah blush. At the Judgement, the antediluvians will surely ask God why He spared us for so long. Assuredly, all that stands between our civilization and a watery grave is the rainbow.
The state of the world may bring us to cry to God like Isaiah, to implore Him to “rend the heavens and come down”, to touch the mountains and make them smoke, to make “the [them] … quake at His presence[.]” We groan with the Creation, longing for the renewal of all things; we look for the awesome deeds of the Lord. And yet we must not allow our sinful flesh to use the wickedness of our country, our neighbors, and the times to excuse, to diminish, or to conceal our own wickedness. As the reading from Isaiah teaches of man in his natural, fallen state: “There is no one who calls upon [the name of the Lord].”
As we confess, we are sinful and unclean; we sin in thought, word, and deed; and we justly deserve both present and eternal punishment. We are just as deserving of punishment — both temporally in this life and eternally in the next — as the rest of our fallen race. There are no righteous men. It is only God’s mercy, patience, and forbearance that keep this world from being swept away in an instant. God has promised never again to flood the entire world, but He has also sworn that this world will end by fire.
We may be tempted, given the state of the world, that these are the End Times, but we must remember that only God knows the day and the hour. And yet the wages of sin is death, and so we, as mortal men, are never more than a few moments away from death — and it is appointed for man but once to die and then the Judgement. For us mortals, then, all times are end times.
So what are we, as Christians, to do in times such as these? Two things:
First, we are to do nothing. No one calls upon the name of the Lord because all are dead in sin and trespass, and the dead do not act. And yet we, Christians, are no longer dead. In the opening of First Corinthians, in his greetings, which comes just before our reading for today, Paul describes himself as “called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus”, and, lest there be any confusion, shortly afterward (and in our reading for today) Paul calls the Christians of Corinth, to whom he is writing, “called to be saints”.
There is only one kind of Christian — the called, the Elect. If you believe today, it is not because of anything you did, for no good thing dwells in man’s fallen, sinful flesh; rather, faith is the free gift of God, bestowed via the Word and the Sacraments. You were chosen in Christ before the foundations of the Earth were laid. The faith brought forth in your heart and the regeneration of your soul are no less miraculous than the creation of the Universe. God spoke and there was light; through HIs words He brought for creation. God spoke and you were brought from death in sin and trespass to new life in the Spirit; where you were first given faith through hearing the Word proclaimed or through the water and the Word in Holy Baptism, it was the power of God that brought forth the miracle of faith in your heart.
And in what does this faith repose trust? In what do we believe? We believe in Christ crucified for sinners. By His holy, precious blood, we are cleansed of all sin and unrighteousness. Some will ask: How do we know that we are among the Elect? Do not listen to those who tell you to look within yourself for the answer, for that is not where Scripture directs us. Scripture directs us to look outside ourselves, for God has ordained Means by which we receive Grace. We look to the Word and the Supper where the Spirit is active to strengthen faith, and we look to our Baptism. Baptizatus sum — I am baptized. In the words of our hymn: ‘Child of God, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ.‘ Our certainty rests entirely with Christ, not with us. In the words of our Epistle reading: “our Lord Jesus Christ … will sustain [us] to the end[.]”
As Christ’s work was necessary and is sufficient and complete, we need do nothing. No works of our own ever could or ever would save us. And yet we are saved by works — Christ’s perfect work and His perfect sacrifice.
Second, we are to joyfully do good works, not because they are necessary or merit justification or salvation, but because we have been regenerated and now, through the power of the Spirit, have the ability to participate in good works, to cooperate in sanctification. But what are these good works?
By good works, we do not mean the sort of human traditions that are lauded by many. You need not go searching for good works, for God, in the words of Ephesians, has ‘prepared such works beforehand’ “that we should walk in them”.
We look to the Ten Commandments and to our vocations and we find more opportunity for good works than we could pursue in a thousand years.
To keep a home is a good work. To raise godly children is a good work. To care for God’s Creation —of which we are stewards — is a good work. To charge fair prices is a good work. In short, to live our lives where we are — where God has placed us — and to care for those whom God has entrusted to our care is the very heart of doing good works. To paraphrase Luther: ‘God does not need our good works, but our neighbor surely does.’
We know, of course, that good works do not merit justification, do not merit forgiveness of sins, do not merit eternal life, but that is not why we do them. We do good works because we are — as regenerated believers — able to do them. This is something the unregenerate cannot do. When we were without the Spirit, we were dead in sin and trespass and all our works were filthy rages — there is nothing good in fallen, unregenerate man. But we are no longer dead and we no longer serve sin as our masters with works leading to death; we have died to sin and to the flesh and we now live to Christ. In Baptism, we were joined in His death and brought back into new life. We, who once were dead, now live.
This is not to say that we will, as Christians, now live sinless lives. Our flesh still clings to us and we will not be free of sin until we shed this mortal body, and put on a restored, imperishable, perfect body. But we need fear neither our infirmity nor death. Christ will sustain us to the end; He will complete the work He began when first we were gifted faith. When He chose you, He knew all your sins — and not just the ones you have already committed. Flee temptation and resist sin, but know that when you fall — and you will fall — there is forgiveness. There is forgiveness because He paid the price, not some of the price, not part of the price, not even most of the price, but all of the price.
And that is the Good News: Forgiveness is the free gift of God, and it comes with eternal life.