Stand Before Christ
November 23, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The last Sunday of the Church Year is devoted to praising God for Christ the King. So the last word is not that Christ is our Good Shepherd, which he is (John 10:11) – nor that he is our Rabbi or teacher, which he also is (Matthew 23:8). What is most important is that he is King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15).
As our king Christ is surely the mighty Creator – who brings into being all that is (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16) and sustains all that has been created through the coherence of his love (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). And he is also the lord of history – watching over the expanses of time which stretch through human history (Ephesians 1:22). As such he cares for the righteous and thwarts the wicked. He is the Lord God of Hosts who fights for his children down through the stretches of time and history (1 John 3:8).
But what matters most about our King of kings is that he is our judge. In the end he will return to judge the living and the dead – just as the creeds of the church say. On that day we will “stand before the judgment seat of God” to give an account of ourselves to him (Romans 14:10-12). “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another,” dividing the goats from the sheep (Matthew 25:32). On that day we will have to “render an account for every careless word” we’ve ever said (Mathew 12:36). On that day the goats will be sent straight to hell to suffer everlasting torment (Luke 16:23, 28). But the sheep will go to heaven for all of eternity – where all sadness and pain, sin and death, will be gone forever (Revelation 21:4).
Now this day of judgment will be an awesome and fearful one because of the chance any of us could be a goat. If it were not for that risk, we wouldn’t bat an eye about this day. But because of that possibility – that our everlasting future is split between two options: heaven and hell – it deeply frightens us. For not everyone ends up in heaven – by virtue of some glorious union of all diverse elements (see my “For Christians Only” under publications at flcws.org). No, the eschaton or end forces two options upon us: heaven or hell – the first for the sheep and the last for the goats.
Underneath this forced option is the looming presupposition of two worlds. This is not a popular belief since it flies in the face of two other prevailing views. On the one hand, many believe in but one world, and that world is a materialistic one (see Goetz & Taliaferro, Naturalism, 2008). And on the other hand, among the more imaginative, there are those who believe in multiple worlds ranging throughout the universe with its various galaxies (see Lisa Randall, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, 2005). But in the Bible there are exactly, and only, two worlds – nothing more or less. And these two worlds exist in sequence – with this present world existing first and then passing over into a purified and final world which follows after it (Romans 8:18-23; Revelation 21:3-4). St. Peter gives this two-world view its classic formulation (2 Peter 3:10-13):
[For] the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.... [And then] according to his promise, we wait for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Because this present world is wasting away (1 Corinthians 7:31) it isn’t to be held onto tightly nor praised highly (James 4:4). Our commonwealth, after all, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 13:14). Nor are we to love it since it is so evil (1 John 2:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19). Instead we are to eagerly anticipate the coming of the next, better world (2 Peter 3:12; Hebrews 9:26).
This negative evaluation of our present world isn’t very popular. So Luther tries to help us understand it more fully in his Large Catechism (1529) [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) pp. 434, 413):
The world... assails us by word and deed and drives us to anger and impatience.... There is in it nothing but hatred and envy, enmity, violence and injustice,... cursing, reviling, slander, arrogance, and pride, along with fondness for luxury, honor, fame, and power.... This is the way the wretched, perverse world acts, drowned in its blindness, misusing all the... gifts of God solely for its own pride and greed, pleasure and enjoyment, and never once turning to God to thank him or acknowledge him as Lord and Creator.
No wonder Luther thought this present world is nothing but one big whorehouse (Luther’s Works 21:180)! Note that he doesn’t rail against the flora and fauna of the good earth. For he is instead – along with the Bible – only against the world which we have made – socially, politically and culturally – upon the face of the earth.
Crushing Our Pride
Now if this is what it means to rejoice in Christ the King, how can we do it? If we are to look forward to the coming destruction of this world and long for Christ’s coming judgment, can we really do that? Doesn’t the fear inherent in such a thought hold us back from any such jubilation and praise on this feast day?
And really, why do we have to hear about all of this anyway? Are not baptized, believing Christians safe? Isn’t this word about judgment only for the damned, ungodly and unrighteous? Why are we being told about it at all? Hasn’t this passage from Matthew 25 about the goats and the sheep been misused by being read in church today? Aren’t we exempt – since none of us are goats?
As much as we would like that, it isn’t the truth of the matter. Luther rather has it right when he says:
If someone... abstains from external sins,... he develops the presumption of righteousness and relies on his good works.... There remains [in him] immense pride, self-trust,... contempt for grace and mercy, [and] ignorance of... Christ.... Therefore this presumption of righteousness is a huge and a horrible monster. To... crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath (LW 26:310).
So Christians need to hear the thunder of hell in order to crush that horrible monster of self-righteousness which grows up in us when we manage to stop sinning externally. This is unnerving because it proves that all of us are vulnerable – that all of us could fall (BC, p. 35). And this turns even our virtues into vices (Isaiah 64:6).
Passing Through Judgment
So the prospects of judgment day are indeed horrifying. We don’t seem to have a leg to stand on. This discombobulates us, if you will. And no amount of preparation seems to help either – since all our training would finally come to nothing when we are tongue-tied as we stand before Christ himself on judgment day.
But just when all seems to be utterly lost, John 5:23-24 comes to the rescue. There we read that whoever
does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.... [But whoever] hears my word and believes him who sent me, [he] has eternal life; [for] he does not come into judgment.
Isn’t that fantastic! And hard to believe, at that. Almost too good to be true. For here we learn that faith, just faith in Christ saves us – with nothing else needed. Unbelievable! We don’t have to be morally pure or hugely successful in order to be blessed by God. No, all we have to do is believe in Christ and we will be free from judgment and saved for eternity. Luther put it this way:
The ungodly should fear God, flee from Him, and not approach Him joyfully. But you who believe in [Christ] shall not be judged,.... for through... faith the judgment has been abolished (LW 22:376).
So believers in Christ pass through judgment without being judged – and it’s just that simple. Nothing has to be said. No lines need to be memorized. Instead we are marked by the blood of the Lamb, and the angel of death will pass over us, upon seeing it (Revelation 7:14; Exodus 12:13; 1 Corinthians 5:7). So we will surely stand before Christ’s judgment seat on that final, fearful day – but then we will be waived on through, as it were. Glory be to Jesus!
How Christ Helps
But just how does all of this happen? How does our faith in Christ abolish judgment for us? If it doesn’t cancel out judgment day altogether or lower the standards in order to make it easier for us to pass, just how does it happen? St. Paul spells it out for us in 2 Corinthians 8:9. There we read:
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [is] that though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
This is clearly a condensed, algebraic verse – with little vivid detail to help us grasp it easily. But what it is saying is that Christ’s unlikely poverty turns our wretched poverty into spiritual riches. This turn away from spiritual poverty and condemnable sin is what keeps us from going to hell on judgment day. And this happens because Christ became poor – he who was perfect, holy and innocent became a curse, became poor, in order to free us from the curse that condemns us (Galatians 3:13). He canceled that legal bond which fearfully stood against us, by dying in our place on the cross (Colossians 2:14). Our sins were driven into his body on the cross with each nail that was viscously pounded into him (1 Peter 2:24). And by so doing he saved us from God’s wrath – which is a divine anger that wants to damn us in hell forever (Romans 5:9).
And only Christ can do this for us because we are not good enough to pull it off ourselves (Romans 3:27-28). We are not, as Luther points out, the shinning rational creatures we think we are [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 3:217-220]. He goes on to say, explaining this further:
But what is man essentially when compared with God or with the angels?.... God is eternal, righteous, holy, and truthful; in short, God is all that is good; on the other hand, man is mortal, unrighteous, deceitful, replete with vice, sin, and depravity.... God is full of grace; man is full of impiety and is under God’s wrath.... [So] when we portray ourselves correctly,... we find that there is a great difference between God and us humans, [so great, in fact, that] it is impossible even to make a comparison [at all. And because of that, we see] how deeply God humbles himself for us poor creatures and how... affectionately he receives us.... [So] according to the [Bible],... man is... guilty of eternal death. It is for the sake of such desperate scoundrels,... that Christ was born.... Therefore, hold out your hand, lay hold of it, and say, True, I am godless and wicked, there is nothing good in me,... however, against all of this... I set this child [Christ Jesus].... over against everything I do not have.
Indeed we are just such scoundrels and so only Christ can be set against everything that sets us up for everlasting condemnation. If we were pure, we wouldn’t need him. But we aren’t, and so we do. For that reason it is all the more troubling and exasperating, as Luther goes on to say, that
where the treasure is so great that it could not be greater – no one reaches out his hands for it,.... and [there are even] many who despise and disdain it.... [So] shame on the world because it is filled with scoundrels who simply will not accept this treasure and yet need him so desperately. The whole world should crawl toward him on all fours if it had no other way to go. [Yet] our Lord God is still delighted when there are some who desire this treasure.... Were one to preach... about a rich man who was willing to give a lot of money to everyone,... the entire world would come running.... [Nevertheless] our message should evoke in us a more vital tie to this child than to our own body and life.... [And so] we keep [preaching this message]... that at least for a few people, comfort and joy will follow.
So let not that shame be upon us. Let us rather repent and hold on to Christ our Savior. Let us delight in the fact that God still delights in us when we believe in his dear Son. Let us repent having seen the error in our ways. Let us repent knowing what the Lutheran Confessions say, that
to repent means... to feel heartily sorry for [one’s sins] and to desist from them. This knowledge comes from the law, but it is not sufficient... unless there is added faith in Christ, whose merit the comforting proclamation of the holy Gospel offers to penitent sinners who have been terrified by the proclamation of the law. For the Gospel does not preach the forgiveness of sins to indifferent and secure hearts (BC, p. 559).
So repent. And this you can do because you have heard of the One who became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich in the grace of God. And to help us even more, Christ is with us today – not only in his precious Word – but also in the Lord Supper. So come to the altar this day. Kneel down (Ephesians 3:14) and eat of the bread and drink of the cup that Christ may abide in you so you can abide in him and grow in faith and love (John 6:53-58).
All Other Kings
And then do good works in his name, knowing that those who live in the Spirit must also walk by that same Spirit (Galatians 5:25). As St. Augustine (354-430) preached long ago, we who believe by God’s grace also have many great tasks before us [quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, Saved in Hope: Encyclical Letter (2007) p. 46]:
The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be encouraged, the bad tolerated; all must be loved.
But what specific good work should we pursue on this feast of Christ the King? Surely it would have to do with how we regard our earthly rulers – which is a spin-off from Augustine’s call to put the proud in their place. So if Christ, as our King, is above all of these rulers (Ephesians 1:21), how then should we properly regard them? 1 Samuel 8:4-7 warns us that the first kings to rule over Israel, by their very nature, stood as an alternative to – and even a rejection of – God’s mighty rule over us. So we will not want to imitate the chief priest who said: “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Even so, anarchy can’t be right either because we are to honor rather than overthrow our kings and rulers (Romans 13:7) and to pray for them rather than hate them (1 Timothy 2:2). But how best shall we do this?
In his treatise on Temporal Authority (1523), Martin Luther offers this sage advice:
You are to take the risk of entrusting matters to others, but you are yourself to trust and rely upon God alone. You will certainly have to entrust duties to somebody else and take a chance on him, but you should trust him only as one who might fail you, whom you must continue to watch with unceasing vigilance (LW 45:123).
So be neither a wide-eyed radical, going against all rulers altogether; nor a dumb-as-dirt sycophant, believing anything your rulers say. Instead trust them – hoping for the best; and then watch them – expecting the worst.
This mixed, dialectical approach, is the best because when Christ is our king, he in effect says to us:
Fear nobody but me, for I can smite you, and put your trust in none but me, for I can help you. No prince will give you either good or evil, for both are in my hand (LW 51:139).
This is because while rulers can change the world, they cannot improve upon it (LW 12:317). Only God can do that. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)