Oremus. Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds; through the same, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Lord Comes on the Last Day
[Malachi 4:1–6 + Romans 15:4–13 + Luke 21:25–36]
The day on which our Lord returns will be a “great and awesome day” (Mal. 4:5). For He will come in a cloud with great power and glory. To the wicked and the proud, it will be a Day of judgment that will “set them ablaze” (Mal. 4:1). The signs preceding this Day will bring them fear and fainting. But to those who believe, who fear the name of the Lord, this Day is one to look forward to and rejoice in: “. . . straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Christ our Redeemer is coming; the Sun of Righteousness will bring healing in His wings. Let us, then, give attention to the words of the Lord, which do not pass away. Let us “through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures” (Rom. 15:4) be strengthened in our hope by the Holy Spirit and watch diligently for Jesus’ coming. Then, by God’s grace, we shall escape all these things that will come to pass and stand before the Son of Man.
As we noted that “Wake, Awake” captured the liturgical tone for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, so Wesley’s incomparable “Lo, He Comes” does the same for this Sunday. The antiphon to the Introit captures the joy of the day: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes.” What the Church eagerly waits for in the Parousia is not “doomsday” but “the regeneration” – the rebirth of creation. When “the Lord causes His majestic voice to be heard” then His people will have “gladness of heart.” Everywhere the joy of the early Church’s “maranatha!” rings through in this day’s celebration.
Not to be missed: the Day that is coming, the Sun that will be a burning oven and set ablaze the wicked, is the very same that brings healing light to “those who fear” the Lord’s name. Not two different events; the same event. The Advent of a Light so intense and bright, so powerful and strong. It is death to those who despise the Lord and His ways; it is healing to those who long to be freed from sin. The advent of this light to them is like springtime for pent-up calves – kicking up their heels in delight at life as they are let out. Beneath their feet, the ashes, the remnant of the wicked. How to be among those who are ready, so that that day is joy and release and not terror and destruction? “Remember the law of my servant Moses.” That will keep you in saving humility. “Look for Elijah” who will turn hearts back to the Lord: in other words, heed the Baptist as he calls you to repentance and points you to the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin. Much joy can be had tracing down all the fire lingo: our God is a consuming fire from Deuteronomy to Hebrews. St. Paul speaks of the fire testing each man’s work. Our Lord says that everyone will be salted with fire. St. Maxmos and others have speculated that heaven and hell are the same place - the same fire lights them both – and that is God’s presence. To some it is warm, joy, delight; to others pain, misery and sorrow.
Our God is a God of hope. He gives a certain hope and foretaste of the future that will be in His Son’s resurrection from the dead and entrance into glory. We anticipate that glory as we with one voice extol and glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and welcome one another with the same kindness with which we have been welcomed by God. For our Lord became servant to Jew and Gentile that both might sing one song of praise together, or, as Kleinig would say, so that we can join in the heavenly choir and be part of that choir here on earth, heralding the coming age.
Gospel in Detail: Luke 21:25-36
Luke 21:25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Heavenly and cosmic events announce the end: “creation itself is torn apart.” TLSB There is world wide confusion at the events as they begin to occur. But perplexity is the prelude to the fear that shakes the world when all that seemed reliable and stable is shaken and comes crumbling down. Homiletically, you might note that long before the great signs of destruction of the whole, there are times when our personal universes crumble and we are forced to face the terror of the end. “It’s inoperable; I’m sorry” and such. “Shaken” calls forth Haggai 2:6-9 – and also rings in Hebrews 12:26-29. The removal of what is not permanent. And we do well in that context to remember also St. Paul’s works in 2 Cor. 4:18 – we look for the things that are eternal and they cannot be seen, but we know that when all that IS seen is shaken, then the eternal will appear. Meanwhile it is hidden and our secret joy.
27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The Son of Man coming in clouds with power and much glory calls forth Daniel 7:13,14. What Daniel saw was the Ascension of that Son of Man; what here is foretold is His appearing in glory at the end of time. Cloud and glory also point to temple, to God’s presence.
Straighten up and raise your heads! Not the cowering, cringing fear of those who are in terror that everything they thought of as stable and theirs is wiped out; but the joy of people who could say with the Psalmist: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none on earth that I desire besides You? My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (73) Your redemption, your release, is drawing near. The final deliverance from bondage to sin and to death is at hand. Luther said that no one need fear that Day who longs to be freed from sin; only fear it, if you want to keep your sin.
Heads raised up and watching point to the words of the Creed: “and I LOOK FOR the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”
Luke 21:29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Luther again is joyous in the “aha” that all things falling apart in this creation signal not its death and destruction, not its cold winter, but the dawning of the unending summer of God, and so the creation’s completion, its final joy, its perfection. Our Lord’s words are designed to chase the fear away from our hearts when we see the universe (or our personal universe) crumble; there is something more certain than the universe. The words and promise of Jesus.
Verse 32 is notorious in its difficulty. Option #1: Jesus got it wrong; it didn’t happen as fast as He thought it would. Impossible for Orthodox Christians to embrace. Option #2: Jesus got it right; the cataclysmic events described all occur with His own Exodus upon the Cross and so that generation got to see the New Creation ushered in, even if not fulfilled yet. Option #3: Jesus got it right. This generation refers to the unbelievers and indicates that there will be unbelievers all the way through to the end (TLSB note Luke apparently uses the term this way 9 times). Option #4: Jesus got it right. This generation refers to the CHURCH, and so is a version of the promise of perpetuo mansura. Option #5: Jesus got it right. This generation refers to the generation at the end that begins to see the cosmic falling apart – it will be that generation on whom the end will come (hence, not a prolonged but a sudden, cataclysmic event). There may be other options; but those are the ones I’ve heard. If you add in verse 33 and the promise that Jesus’ words are what go on even when the heaven and the earth have crumbled to bits, then I think option 4 might have something to commend it.
Luke 21:34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Hearts “weighed down” is the exact opposite of “sursum corda.” The stuff that pulls the heart downward is both excess of pleasure (drunkenness) and of worry. Both focus on the visible world. In contrast the Church calls out (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom): “Let us lay aside all earthly cares…” This before the sursum and so hearts in the heights. A heart in the height, a heart that belongs already to the citizenship of heaven, is a heart that longs and waits for the Day of the Lord’s appearing. It knows that destruction will come upon all that is visible. And so the heart does not give itself to what passes away, but to what abides eternally. So people with sursumed cordas are vigilant, staying awake, praying for the strength to escape the destruction that will come and instead to find all joy in standing before the Son of Man. The Eucharist already gives it to us in anticipation and hidden, but then the Eucharist will be visible – everything that is now hidden will be visible and all that is now visible will be wiped out.
Fear or joy? Let ours be the joy – but let it be a vigilant joy that recognizes the danger always posed by hearts prone to resist sursuming and which tend by nature toward the downward (Augustine pointed out that the animals are made bent downward; we were made to look up!). The SLOG is in the gift that raises our hearts and gives us even now a participation and anticipation of how it will be in the End. Stir up our hearts, O Lord!