You hear a lot of talk these days about “signs” and the end of the world. People are constantly pointing to how bad things are now and think the end has to be near. There’s no denying that things are bad and that the end is near, but contrary to popular opinion, Scripture doesn’t give us any clear signs that we can look to for evidence that the Last Day is upon us.
Things may be bad now, but they’re really no worse than they’ve ever been. Sure, we find new ways to do evil things, but they’re the same old evils. As Solomon says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It’s hard to imagine humanity committing a greater evil than crucifying the Son of God, and that happened thousands of years ago.
The Last Day will come suddenly, “like a trap”, our Lord says in today’s Holy Gospel. Now if it’s like a trap, that means it will come by surprise. A trap wouldn’t be any good if you could see it coming, or else you’d avoid it. The Last Day will come suddenly, unexpectedly, like a trap springing on the unsuspecting prey. As our Lord says, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect, (Mat 24:44).” All this focus signs and predictions of the apocalypse is nonsense and directly contrary to what our Lord teaches in His Word.
Remember what St. Paul says about the Last Day in his first letter to the Thessalonians? It will come “like a thief in the night.” Suddenly, unexpectedly. We know it is coming and that we should be ready, but when it happens it will be sudden and unexpected. It’s unpredictable.
There aren’t any signs in the sky that will remind us of our Lord’s coming, so it’s easy to forget about it altogether. We all too easily let our hearts get weighed down with the cares of this age. Jesus compares the suddenness with which that Day will come to how it was in the days of Noah and the flood. Nobody was ready for that—nobody except Noah, at least. Divine judgment came suddenly and caught many unprepared. Why? Because of an excessive focus on the concerns of the present age. As our Lord says in St. Luke 17:
Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot–they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all– so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (v. 26—30).
There are signs of the end, but they aren’t unique to our time. Two of the primary ones Scripture mentions are false teaching about God and ungodly living. But again, these are nothing new; they’ve been around since Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lie (there’s the false teaching) and their firstborn murdered his brother (if that isn’t ungodly living, I don’t know what is!). Again and again the Scriptures admonish us to hold fast to the pure Word of God, avoiding all false teaching, and living a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called.
Luther summarizes this twofold concern when he says God wants us to hold fast to the Word of God in its truth and purity and lead holy lives according to it. To believe or live contrary to God’s Word—false doctrine and ungodly living—profane the name of God among us (cf. also the Post-Communion Collect). If only we believed God’s Word rightly and lived accordingly, there would be absolutely nothing wrong in the world.
False teaching abounds these days, so it’s particularly important to be on guard against this. There are many so-called Christians out there who don’t think you need the Church to be saved. That’s false doctrine. The idea that you can cut yourself off from Christ’s Church and still be a Christian is one of Satan’s favorite lies.
Another one, which has found a home in many churches these days, is the condemnation of Christ’s sacraments are mere superstition. Baptism is a new birth, not an act of obedience. The Lord’s Supper is the Body and Blood of Christ, not a little snack we have in Jesus’ memory. To trust your reason above God’s Word is the height of arrogance.
But maybe the worst false doctrine of all is also the most common—one that infects all churches—is the lie that doctrine doesn’t matter. Most churches in the world today either add to or take away from God’s Word, and that’s terribly dangerous. Even in our beloved Missouri Synod, despite having a pure confession, there are congregations filled with those who either don’t know or care to know anything about doctrine.
How about false living? These days we’re encouraged to do whatever makes us happy. It’s hard to imagine a way of living that’s more contrary to God’s will than that. Those who love Christ deny themselves and submit their will to the will of God. Christians desire to live by God’s standards, not ones we’ve created for ourselves.
Since we all want what God has forbidden, the Christian life is one of daily repentance, about denying yourself and doing what God pleases, not whatever you please. If you think you can do whatever you want and just ask God for forgiveness, you will go to hell. How you live matters very much to God, and if you continue in sin—if you continue to live by your own standards—it will destroy your faith. Repent. Your life is not your own.
The prophet says, “Behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” The arrogant are those who aren’t serious about living out their faith. The evildoers are those who sin. That is to say, everybody who has ever been born, excluding our Lord. The only way to escape the oven is to repent and believe. Every sin you commit poses a serious threat to your faith. When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? (St. Luke 18:8b). Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “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.”
It’s easy to paint “the wicked” as other people, but those who don’t believe or even willfully define life according to their own standards aren’t so different from us. They aren’t “bad people”—they love their families and might even think religion is a good thing and find Jesus inspiring. They love Christmas and even tear up when they watch movies like “The Notebook.”
But here’s the thing: loving Christmas and eggnog and Rudolph and family does not make one a Christian. Nothing, not even the most loving thing you’ve ever done in your life can make you a Christian. Everybody sins; even the most saintly Christian is every bit as sinful as the most ruthless dictator. If you were judged by the things you do, you would be destroyed as stubble in a fire. Repent.
The days are evil; it’s not hard to be led into temptation by Satan and lose the most important thing you have, your faith. There’s perhaps no greater danger to your salvation than to take the grace of God for granted. If anyone thinks he stands let him take heed lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12).
Cling to Christ’s wounds. He will come on the Last Day, but He doesn’t leave you unprepared. This is why He comes to you again today in humility, hidden under water, words, bread, and wine. And if He comes to you in grace and mercy now, He will come again in the same way on the Last Day—in grace and mercy—and complete what was begun in you in Holy Baptism.
So flee to Christ and remain there. And then “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,” (St. Luke 21:36).
Soli Deo Gloria
 For several of these insights I am indebted to David Petersen.