What do the Scriptures teach us about the end of the world, the final judgment, and Christ’s second coming? We know from today’s gospel that Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
On that day, Christ will return to judge the world, but not to set up an earthly government. Remember that at His Ascension the disciples asked if Jesus was about to restore the kingdom to Israel. Their thoughts were on the temporary, not the eternal. When Christ returns, there will be no need for an earthly government. God will no longer rule though faulty, failing, and sinful men. He will do it Himself. He is the Judge.
And the time of Christ’s second coming is known only the God alone. Only the Father knows the specific day of His Son’s return. He will come when we least expect it. When that Day comes, you won’t know it’s the day. Everything will go on as usual. The sun will rise, people will get ready for work and school. The seasons will change. The weather will do what it does. As it is today, so will it be when Christ returns.
This means we must be ready at all times. This is one of the overarching messages of these last three weeks. There is a call to repentance: amend your lives. Don’t live lives of sin, of thinking that Christ will never return, or that He doesn’t care how you live. He does. He does not want you to go on sinning so that grace may abound. He doesn’t want you thinking that sin is without temporal and eternal consequence.
And His return is near, as it has been for nearly 2,000 years. But do not consider that delay to mean that He will not return. Look around you. Everyone who says this isn’t just hand-wringing. They’re right. It’s worse now than it ever has been. Unrighteousness is not just rampant, it is expected and it is praised. There are wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, the increase of lawlessness, and love grows cold. These are the signs that call for our repentance as Christ’s return draws near.
But the second coming of Christ is also the source of hope and joy for us. Our redemption is drawing near. For in that day, we receive as a present reality what we know today as our future hope. When this world comes to its close we will be freed from the attacks of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature. We are redeemed from all evil and brought into the Kingdom. All cares, sighing, and evil will come to an end. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes. Those who have died in Christ Jesus will rise first, and we who are still alive will be raised with them. We will all be transformed, recreated. The perishable will put on the imperishable. All who died in Christ, all who are Baptized into Him will experience the rebirth of our bodies. Then we will inherit the new heaven and the new earth promised. We will experience life the way Adam and Eve did in the perfection of Eden. On the Last Day, sin and its awful effects won’t just be fixed, as if they ever could be. Sin and its awful effects will be done away with as everything is recreated. God will allow us to experience what very good really means. He will allow us to experience that intimate communion with Him in the cool of the day, just as our first parents did for that brief time.
Jesus summarizes that in what sounds like an odd statement. “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” That’s an unfortunate translation. The bird in question is better translated as eagle, not vulture. The ESV editors chose vulture because eagles do not eat dead flesh. Jesus isn’t compounding the agony of the end by saying that vultures will pick at dead flesh. What Jesus says is a promise, not a threat. He means that the saints will gather around the cross like eagles.
Already now, in the midst of the chaos of the end, in these evil days, despite the fact that we can’t fix things, we gather where the Body of Jesus is given to us and for us. We are drawn to Him as He is lifted up in the preaching of His Word and in the Holy Supper. As it is now, so will it be on the Last Day. We who trust in the Lord will have our strength renewed. We will mount up with wings like eagles. We will run and not be weary. We will walk and not faint. Wherever the Body is, there the eagles will gather.
The point is that Christ is and will be with us through all of the difficulty of the end times in His Body given for us. He will continue to gather us to Himself, and by the merits of His Sacrifice for us on the cross and His giving of His Body to us in the Holy Communion, we will meet Him in air on the Last Day even as we meet Him now at the altar.
So it is that He causes us to see Him according to that offering, according to His Sacrifice, the great cosmic event that shook creation and changed our fate. We are not fooled by the false christs who boast in earthly power or proofs. We do not go seeking Him where they direct: in our own minds or feelings or in fossils or any earthly thing. He gathers us around His Body. He seeks us. He points to His scars, to the glory of His cross. There, in His Body, He gives us the strength we need to face what we must, the faith to believe His Word and promises, and teaches us to pray ever more fervently, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.”
The strength to endure these days comes from Christ alone. Were it not for His mercy, we would fall away. Until He answers our fervent prayer for Him to come to judge the world and take us to our eternal kingdom, He comes speedily to help us. He breaks into our time and space each week with His saving and strengthening gifts. So come, meet Him where He chooses to be found. He will make you ready for that great and glorious day when He will shine like lightning for all to see, and when He will take you to be with Him forever.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.