Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “‘Behold, I
am coming soon, bringing My reward with Me, to repay each one for what he has done. I
am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ And it is also
said: Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of
life and that they may enter into the city by the gates… And the Spirit and the Bride say,
‘Come.’ So let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the
one who so desires take the water of life without price.” Dear brothers and sisters in our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Christ the King, He is coming. The liturgical
season of Advent is on the horizon, of course, only three short months out now. And I know
that’s a time of year we all eagerly await, right? If for no other reason than the fact that
Christmas follows it, arguably our favorite church holiday. But more importantly than all
that, for us faithful believers, our Lord’s final advent, His second coming, His ultimate
return on the clouds in glory, His descending from the heavens above just as He once
ascended to them, this most momentous advent of all remains forever on the figurative
horizon, no matter the time of year. And we know that to be true because our Savior tells us
as much in our reading this morning. I ended my sermon last week with these words that we
hear again today – Jesus, the King, promises: “Surely I am coming soon!” – Put otherwise:
“Don’t worry, little flock, My advent, it is coming very shortly.”
Now the holy Christian church has waited many centuries for this advent, millennia
even. Our ancestors in the faith, all the faithful departed who preceded us for two thousand
years, they once waited like we now wait. In years past, theirs was our present wait, it was
no different for them then than it is for us now. They waited patiently, though no doubt with
keen expectation. They, the millions if not billions of sinner-saints from every generation,
longed for Christ Jesus to return and bring them home, just like we do. And it goes without
saying that it has so far been quite a long and protracted anticipation, hasn’t it? Again, two
whole millennia. That’s something of a wait, wouldn’t you say?
Probably the longest wait in all of human history. But no matter how long that wait
continues to last, our Lord’s parting words to His church, recorded in St. John’s apocalyptic
revelation, these words are no less true. For as St. Peter tells us in his second epistle, with
God, one day is a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day. Our Lord is surely
coming soon, and that promise is perfectly kept today, just as it was yesterday and as it will
That is why the church’s chief prayer is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” – the closing
words of Holy Scripture, mind you, with which we are invited to pray ceaselessly. Jesus’
promise to us is only perfected and made more trustworthy with the passage of time, as
paradoxical as that may seem – and so our chief prayer begging for His hastened arrival is
mostly a helpful reminder to ourselves of that fact, a reminder of the reliability of His return
and the reality that it draws nearer with every blink of the eye and with every new spoken
prayer. It is closer with each and every subsequent breath. Closer now … and now … and
closer now … But in this growing wait though, in this drawn-out longing for our dear Lord,
from this day forth until the very last day of all, we have to remain watchful always and as
vigilant as ever, like all those saints who fell asleep before us. Let us never once become
like those foolish virgins in the biblical parable whose oil ran out during the night-watch for
Remember that story? I think it comes up in a month or so in the lectionary. And a
funny story about that story: when I was England a few years back, in a gorgeous Anglican
or Anglo-Catholic church, there was this remarkable statuary depicting the parable of the
foolish and wise virgins. And one of the foolish virgins depicted there, in a striking pose,
looked like this – [face palm] – with a face palm felt for eternity and memorialized in
marble. It was such a funny yet profound sight. You could feel the concrete regret. So no, let
us never be like that, like them, like the foolish virgins. But friends, let us instead be like the
wise virgins and let us be found properly prepared when Jesus does return. Let us be greeted
by the Groom with robes all washed and readied. Let us, the bride of the church, be
composed, well-dressed, attired and adorned for a heavenly matrimony, in a state befitting
the holy Bridegroom Himself.
He is surely coming soon, so we must not delay in this our preparation or lose watch or
vigilance for even the slightest second. And that warning right there, that admonition toward
readiness and diligence you just heard from my thirty-three-year-old lips, that’s what these
closing Sundays of this current liturgical season are really all about. Preparation.
So how? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we make sure we are ready?
How do we anticipate our Lord with patience yet prudence? Christ could come back at any
moment. Or frankly, dear faithful, we could fall asleep and meet Him first at any moment.
This earthly life is fleeting. Our existence is very fragile. Youth, it is no guarantee against
that regrettable reality. None of us here are invincible, none of us can escape our fate, and
none of us can outrun the hour of our end. So how do we prepare ourselves either for His
triumphant return or for our own jubilant journey home? For the end to our wait or for the
end to our lives?
Well, consider this: the Lord’s angel once showed St. John in his vision a glimpse of
the New Jerusalem, with the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, running through a
grove of sheer vitality, through the midst of the tree of life with its many healing leaves –
and the angel as well showed him the eternal sunshine of the Almighty God’s undying and
undiminished radiance, the radiant brilliance of God’s beautiful, incandescent face. But we
are not yet there, obviously. That was but a glimpse for one man seen centuries ago and
recorded for us latter-day believers to give us hope. But here and now, in 2023, on this
wrecked and sin-ravaged earth, instead of a river of life there is rather a great deal of
drought all around, often apparent in the ground beneath our feet, like with the sad Colorado
river out west, but just as much is there drought present and altogether apparent in the
withered and parched hearts of men and women. Sin and its consequences infect and corrupt
all creation. Which is why creation remains so devastated today. Look around: there are
trees right now ready for their death, a white witch’s winter soon approaching, both in
nature with its seasons of discontentment and its misuse and abuse by greedy and careless
men, and more importantly there is persistent winter and disease in the souls of the
unbelieving world out there, too, whose superficially ripened fruits all spoil in eternity. And
there is plenty of darkness, both physical and spiritual. We know that painfully well.
It is dark for lengthy periods of time – we ourselves are soon to endure longer hours of
darkness. And that darkness is equally as actual in the wicked ways of the world. Evil goes
on for days these days. No, as is evident to all with eyes wide to see, we are not yet home.
This devastated world is not our true home, we are but pilgrims here. Yet the Bridegroom is
nevertheless coming soon, to carry us over the threshold, to hurry us there, to hasten us
home, where all things will be made new, where a fresh creation awaits us. Therefore, we
must be found ready, at any time.
So how? How do we make ourselves ready? How do retain the oil in our spiritual
lanterns and keep our robes pure and white? We all want so much to enter into the holy city
of the New Jerusalem by the gates someday and to have a right to that tree of life at its
center once again. So how do we do that? What do we have to do? What can we do? Our
Lord Himself says that He will bring with Him His reward, His recompense, and that He
shall repay each according to what he has done. For us, we will be ready for that reward and
that holy recompense if we wash our robes and keep them clean – we are assured of this.
But how? How do we do that exactly? That’s the important question.
Well, put simply, beloved: you do so by staying put. By being still. By being passive
and receptive. You are already where you need to be. You are already in the true church on
earth, the Church militant, you are in the house of God, you are where robes are washed
weekly and where lanterns are kept continually supplied with a sanctifying oil and are
perpetually lit. But outside, in the hopeless dark out there, in the lamp-less night beyond
these walls, “outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers
and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” as Jesus and St. John warn
us. Now, some of us here have also fallen into sexual immorality at some point, most of us
here are idolaters in some way, shape, or form, we all harbor anger and resentment against
our neighbor, murdering him or her in our own hearts, according to Christ in St. Matthew’s
gospel chapter five, and truth be told, we are all mangy dogs, just like that Canaanite woman
begging for the scraps from the master’s table we heard about some weeks ago.
However, these particular sins mentioned outside, these unfortunate failings, though
grievous and shameful they are, regardless, they are forgivable; and insofar as you’ve
repented and confessed them to God the Father, they are thusly truly absolved. You are
forgiven them. Your robes washed clean again. It is that easy.
Yet what we cannot ever let ourselves become is lovers of falsehood. That is a
completely different story. And that is what staying put and holding fast to the true church
and her true teachings prevents and precludes. That is why it is so important to be here,
within these walls at Bethlehem, in God’s company and in the fellowship of His saints. Sin
is forgiven freely wherever there is repentance and faith, full stop. No sin whatsoever is
unforgivable or unpardonable, except the sin against the Holy Spirit. But falsehood, faith
and falsehood can never coexist. They have nothing to do with one another. One is of the
true God and the other of Lucifer. Falsehood, wherever it perpetuates itself in impenitence is
unpardonable – and in truth, it is the sin against the Holy Spirit, it is akin to blasphemy –
because it is a rejection of the true faith.
Our Lord, when He returns in glory, He will repay us for what we have done. But
what we have done, what we do now, whatever good is wrought and worked by our feeble
human hands, it is not actually even ours to claim, now is it? We went through this a few
weeks back. Instead, it is all the work of the Holy Spirit within us, sanctifying us and others
through us, as mere vessels of God’s good and gracious will – this work is nothing more
than the fruit of our faith, the evidence of our belief – and it doesn’t even belong to us – it
belongs to God alone, Who works faith and belief. Our entrance into the holy city someday,
it has little at all to do with what we are capable of accomplishing by ourselves. We are
sinners, and on our own, we are nothing at all. We would be eternally helpless were it not
for the grace of God. And before that grace, as Luther once scribbled on a deathbed note, we
are all beggars.
No, our passageway into paradise depends solely on faith, it is predicated, based and
contingent on faith alone, on faith in the Son of God worked by the Holy Spirit for the sake
of the Father’s grace – again, the water of life is offered without price, as our reading
promises. We don’t owe anything, because Christ already paid everything. Our hope for the
kingdom rests in belief alone – belief in the truth, belief in Christ, not in falsehood, never in
falsehood nor false teaching. Belief and falsehood are diametrically opposed, the one only
ever diminishes the other. The robes of our bodies and souls were washed clean long ago in
Holy Baptism and they are daily rinsed when we cling to our baptismal faith and when we
drown the old Adam in us in those cleansing waters. Our sin is pardoned every single
Sunday when we walk through those doors there and make our confession collectively as a
church – all our sin, the dirt and the filth are bathed away week by week. Those sins great
and small that so burden your poor souls, they become nothing at all in the eyes of God –
they are forgotten entirely in eternity – the Father solely sees the Son’s sacrifice. And our
lamps, dear friends, our lamps are kept lit, kept oiled, kept readied by the Word proclaimed,
spoken from the lectern and preached from the pulpit. The pulpit and lectern put oil in your
lantern. Think of it that way.
So how do you make yourself ready for the King’s coming? You don’t. You simply
stay put and you receive what is graciously given to you with thanksgiving. You remain in
the bosom of the church; that’s what you should do. You abide precisely where robes and
lanterns are so well cared-for. Right here. You cling to the truth rather than to those
falsehoods and false teachings out there in the world that tug on the sickly souls of sinners,
urging them to abandon the sure certainty they have here in their salvation. There aren’t just
dogs outside, but moreover there are wolves, even wolves in sheep’s clothing. They may try
to tempt you away from the church, or they may lie to you, to your face, and tell you that
you can do something more, that you can add something, that you can do a little bit extra to
ready yourself for the final judgment, or that you can even save yourself in the end. But they
only ever lie. The wolves and the self-righteous hypocrites and legalists are one in the same.
The serpents and the Pharisees are no different, which is why our Lord once called them a
brood of vipers. And they and their falsehoods have no place in the coming kingdom.
Falsehood and faith are sworn enemies. So don’t be carried away by the god of this world
and by the seduction of untruth and false doctrine. Only untruth is unforgiveable. All else is
pardoned by Christ’s bloodshed. Never lose sight of that fact.
You, friends, are saved by grace through faith. You know this. Truth and faith, faith
in the truth, faith in the truth incarnate at Bethlehem and then hung naked on a tree to die
twenty centuries ago, these are what prepare the bride of the church for the coming of the
Bridegroom. So stay put in these, keep steady in the Word and Sacraments, hold still in pure
doctrine and pure practice. Don’t budge and don’t give in – ever. Don’t compromise with
untruth and falsehood. We don’t do that. Our Lord certainly never did.
Read your bible, at least a few verses each day. I’m serious: I implore you to do that
without fail, make it your habit and don’t let yourself break it. Hold yourself accountable.
Or have others hold you accountable. And do the same with your catechism while you’re at
it. Always say your prayers with a willing heart – and even when your heart is unwilling,
say your prayers anyways. Just move your mouth and go through the motions. A willing
heart will come with time. And give thanks to God every morning and night. That is a given.
And tell the people in your life that you are grateful to God for them too. They might
appreciate hearing it spoken out loud once in a while. Ask for guidance and wisdom in your
personal vocations, from God and from others. And when you mess up, which you most
certainly will, as a husband, mother, friend, or brother, seek forgiveness. Don’t waste time.
You don’t know the hour of the Second Coming, nor the hour of your own impending death.
So don’t hesitate. But repent and reconcile. That’s what our religion is all about. And stay
right here, where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. If
you do, then you will be ready for whenever the King finally comes, you’ll be good and
ready until kingdom come. You will be prepared for His permanent advent. Trust me in this.
And yes, you will be ready as well should He first decide to carry you home individually, in
His most able arms, over the threshold of death, into paradise, where you will rest
peacefully in the company of all the saints until that Last Day, until you are raised body and
soul from the grave to inherit the new earth with all the children of God.
The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the King
of glory and of all creation, the Lord of Hosts, He is coming soon, make no mistake. The
truth of that statement has only become truer since this sermon first began twenty or so
minutes ago. And should you ever feel afraid, or too weak to withstand the seemingly
overlong wait, alone or too discouraged and downtrodden to carry on for another difficult
day, then do not despair, dear friends. For behold, Christ the King, He comes to you right
now as well. To pick you up for a little while, to wipe your cheek, to stand you firm and set
you straight, to strengthen and ready you for tomorrow and for the other five days outside
these walls. He comes now, this Sunday, this Lord’s Day, to bear you up for the drought, to
sustain you for the long winter ahead, and to lead you with His unfading light through the
deep darkness of this often-exasperating life. And so very soon, He indeed will come again
in glory at last to make all things new – to put an end to each and every sorrow – to raise the
dead from their defeated death – to grant us access to the river and the tree of life in that
eternal spring on the horizon – to welcome us into His blessed kingdom, where we will live
with Him and all our departed loved ones in the faith in righteousness and under His reign
forever and ever.
Until then though, do not fret, brothers and sisters, everything is going to be alright.
It’s going to be okay. I promise you. Because God is always with you – now – and also
very, very soon. How do we prepare for His coming then? How do we withstand the wait
and ready ourselves for that final advent of His? Well, we do so by being here and receiving
Him when He comes to us right now, in this present and perennial advent – in the Divine
Service, today and next week and the week after that too. So dear saints, I really hope to see
you then. And so does the King, the Holy Bridegroom Himself. In His Name. Amen.