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Today we celebrate the final Sunday of the Church Year and the last chapter of the story of salvation: the Last Day, when Christ will raise the dead and make all things new.
He compares that Day to a wedding feast of supreme joy and delight—even better than when your team wins after 108 long years of losing. But we need to be ready for it, lest we miss out like the 5 foolish virgins.
As often happens at the end of a book or movie, this is where it all comes together.[i] Here our Lord unpacks His entire doctrine and brings it to completion. Everything has been building to this moment.
And we do well to pause and consider this very point, that everything that’s been said in the entire Bible, going back to Eden, is fulfilled on the Last Day. Sometimes we can get so caught up in a theme or season that we focus on it to the detriment of all the rest. On Christmas, it’s all about the Incarnation. On Good Friday, it’s all about the crucifixion.
But that’s not quite right. Doctrine is like a golden ring, Luther famously said.[ii] Every article of faith works together in harmony and supports the other. If the ring’s broken at one point, the whole thing’s ruined.
This is why, as odd as it may seem, it’s perfectly okay, and even good, to sing Lenten hymns during Christmas and Christmas hymns during the middle of summer. We even bring the Alleluias back during Lent when there’s a funeral.
Of course, a given hymn or doctrine will receive more or less emphasis at a given time. But we need to be careful not to lock them up in their respective seasons and hide away the key until next year.
In fact, we sing the Christmas hymn of the angels nearly every Sunday, the Gloria in Excelsis. You know how that goes: “Glory be to God on high…” And we sing the great Lenten hymn of Christ, the sacrificial Lamb going to the slaughter, every single Sunday, even on Christmas morning. “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God…” That’s about as Lenten as it gets.
A Lamb’s a sacrificial animal, and we’re right to sing that crucifixion hymn on Christmas morning. Apart from His death on the cross, our Lord’s birth on the manger is meaningless.
Nor can we rejoice in His on Good Friday apart from His being by conceived the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. In order to be man’s substitute under the Law, He needed to be Man. God needed to be mortal so that He could die.
The story of salvation isn’t a series of unrelated chapters, but a careless focus on one doctrine or season can cause us to forget this. This actually drives a question that comes up, almost without fail, every First Sunday in Lent.
It has to do with the appointed hymn for Invocabit, which is “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The Lutheran tradition, of course, is to sing “Mighty Fortress” on Reformation, since it’s a beloved, Lutheran hymn. But for some, singing it during Lent would feel just as odd as if we’d sung “Away in a Manger” this morning.
And while either “Mighty Fortress” or “Away in a Manger” could work on just about any Sunday, “Mighty Fortress” emphasizes the Lenten theme of spiritual warfare more than the Reformation doctrine of grace alone. It’s all about Christ, the Valiant One, who fights for us against Satan and the forces of hell. Certainly the doctrine of grace alone is there, but it’s part of the chorus, not the melody.
Which brings us back to the point that our Lord’s doctrine is like an unbroken ring, that each article of faith works together in concert and harmonizes with the others. Even though it’s mostly about spiritual warfare, “A Mighty Fortress” works on Reformation Day in much the same way that John’s crucifixion hymn or the angel’s nativity carol works throughout the entire Church year.
Like the articles of faith, the liturgy and the Church year sing with one voice and complement one another beautifully. Each week, the liturgy shows us the big picture while Church year pauses over the various chapters in the story of salvation.
Every Sunday the liturgy begins by taking us back to the Garden of Eden as we acknowledge the Fall and confess our sin. Not long after, the liturgy takes us into the fields of Bethlehem at night, where we hang out with the shepherds and join our voices with the angels’ in singing to our Incarnate Lord.
Every Sunday, the Nicene Creed reviews all of human history—past, present, and future—from the Creation of the world to Christ’s Incarnation, from His crucifixion on Good Friday to the death of death on Easter, from your re-creation in holy baptism and daily life in the communion of saints, all the way to the Last Day and the life of the world to come.
This is why it’s so important for us to appreciate and retain the Church’s historic liturgy and calendar: they keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and contantly set before us the whole story of salvation. When we lose the Church year and the liturgy, we lose Jesus.
Ceremonies will vary from time to time and place to place, but you can’t have Jesus apart from His liturgy, His service, in Word and Sacrament.
There’s a very real danger of losing these treasures to so-called contemporary worship. In these services, the liturgy is replaced by the praise band and the Church year is replaced with the sermon series.
Without the Church year and liturgy to guide us, we can end up in some very bad places. When I was on vicarage in Michigan, one of the nearby LCMS congregations offered a Lenten sermon series called, “The Greatest Sex You’ll Ever Have.”[iii] This is shameful.
Now granted, contemporary worship won’t always result in the pastor giving his congregation what sounds more like a Howard Stern interview than the voice of Christ speaking to His flock, but something other than Jesus is usually front and center at these services, and it’s usually ourselves. The thing that distinguishes contemporary worship from the Divine Service is that the liturgy and church year are replaced with entertainment, with the novel and the frivolous, and, in the worst cases—as I saw on vicarage—with the detestable.
Instead of hymns and doctrine, you get songs that were written to tug on your heartstrings. The Gospel of contemporary worship isn’t about the forgiveness of sins, but about empowering you to the life you’ve always wanted. In this religion, the obstacle to salvation is not sin, but unhappiness. Here you don’t need a Savior or forgiveness, just whatever brings a smile to your face.
Adam and Eve wanted a Divine cheerleader, too—but we all know how that worked out. Jesus didn’t take on human flesh to empower you. He came to suffer and die for your sin.
Of course, Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, and he’ll always put a religious veneer on falsehood. Be on guard. Preserving Word and Sacrament isn’t adiaphora. The liturgy and Church year are not matters of indifference. No Christian can afford to replace the clear, pure proclamation of Law and Gospel with silly love songs. Nothing less than eternal salvation is at stake.
This sober warning is especially appropriate today, as the liturgy stresses the urgency of being prepared for Christ’s return on the Last Day. And it’s important that we pay careful attention, because there’s hardly a doctrine that’s less understood than the End Times.
If the early church made the mistake of thinking the Last Day had already come and they’d missed it, we make the mistake of thinking that the Last Day is somewhere far off in the distant future, or maybe that it won’t come at all.
These are the End Times. Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.[iv] St. John stresses just how little time we have by saying, Children, it is the last hour.[v]
Isaiah foretold the signs of Christ’s Kingdom. The eyes of the blind are opened to see Jesus; the ears of the deaf are opened to His Gospel.[viii] God’s Kingdom comes when His Gospel is preached and the Body and Blood of Jesus are received.
The difference between the wise and the foolish is watchfulness. Today’s Holy Gospel was written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.[ix] You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.[x] Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.[xi]
Speaking of His crucifixion, our Lord said, “Now is the judgment of this world. Now will the ruler of the world be cast out.”[xii] It’s no surprise, then, that the signs of the End accompanied His passion.
In Gethsemane, Judas fulfilled our Lord’s End-Time prophecy that brother will deliver brother over to death.[xiii] And on the cross, those unmistakable signs of were display for all the world to see: the sun was darkened, the earth shook, and the temple curtain was torn in two.[xiv]
God’s End-Time reign has already begun in Christ, and it began in you at the font. Just as important as looking for His Kingdom is knowing where to find it. While we’re tempted to go off looking for God somewhere in highest heaven, He comes wrapped in swaddling cloths, humble and riding on a donkey, and hanging on a cross; at the font, in the preaching of the Gospel, and in Flesh and Blood. His eternal wedding feast has already begun. Take and eat. [xv]
The foolish are those who are either not looking or not prepared. Some procrastinate, thinking there’s always more time to start taking Christianity seriously.
The late Episcopal priest, Fr. Capon, invites us to imagine the virgins as ten fourteen-year-olds on their way to a party, tickled to the point of teenage giggliness at their happy prospects. He says,
“The crisis of missing out on the wedding—the danger of their receiving a snub rather than an invitation to be bridesmaids—is past. They see nothing but tea and cakes from here on out. “But five of them were foolish and five were wise.””[xvi]
The foolish had the invitation, and they figured that was all they needed to guarantee their admission. So they became complacent, and it never dawned on them that they might miss out. Repent of your complacency, beloved, lest you, too, take your salvation for granted and miss out on the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Repent of letting things other than Christ’s Kingdom take priority. Repent of your fixation on the here-and-now: on money, on politics, on games, on things, on career goals, on bucket lists.
Don’t be like those who received an invitation to the Great Banquet and asked to be excused so they could attend to trivial matters. Don’t think there will be always more time. If these parables teach us anything, it’s that God’s patience has a limit.
For the wise, birthdays aren’t another year closer to the grave, but another year closer to the Resurrection, another year closer to Christ fulfilling His promise to deliver us from evil and taking us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.
And so we pray the Second Petition, not only today, but all year round: Thy Kingdom Come. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] cf. Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 490.
[ii] AE 38:307
[iv] Hebrews 1:1–2
[v] 1 John 2:18
[vi] 1 Peter 1:20
[vii] Hebrews 9:26
[viii] Isaiah 35:5
[ix] 1 Corinthians 10:11
[x] Romans 13:11
[xi] St. Matthew 25:13
[xii] St. John 12:31
[xiii] St. Matthew 10:21; 26:55–56
[xiv] St. Matthew 27:51, 24:29, 27:45
[xv] Adapted from Nagel, Complete Sermons, 248.
[xvi] Capon (paraphrase), 496.