Long for Christ’s Return
June 5, 2011
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tightly linked to the Holy Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ
into heaven, to rule over all with his Father forever (Ephesians
1:20-23), is his promise to return one day to us in glory, in order to
judge the living and the dead (John 5:22; 2 Timothy 4:1), and to destroy
this world and make a new and better one (2 Peter 3:11-13). Now that’s a
mouth full if there ever was one – but it still deserves our closest
attention and praise. For so we, just like the men of old in
Now even though this teaching is true and deeply embedded in the creeds of the church, we still bristle at hearing about Christ’s return. Take, for example, the famous bishop, John Spong, who says “I must dismiss the idea of God as a record-keeping deity before whom I shall appear on the day of judgment to have my eternal destination announced, [for] my heart will never worship that which my mind has rejected” [Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998) p. 210]. Now as astonishing as this denial is, that doesn’t make it unheard of. For it’s even in the Bible (2 Peter 3:3)!
And Martin Luther, our most eminent teacher [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576], is well aware of criticisms like these of Bishop Spong, and wrote many pages analyzing them. In his 1523 Sermons on Second Peter he argues against these criticisms, saying that the Holy Scripture
warns us… to be prepared and to expect the Last Day every moment. [The Bible urges and impel us] not to neglect [the] understanding of what a true Christian life is. [For] the number of those who do not believe that the Last Day will come has always been rather large. [Nevertheless, Christ] will appear swiftly, unexpectedly, and suddenly, when the world will be living in the greatest smugness and will be making light of God’s Word. Therefore the nearness of the Last Day will be betokened when people live just as they please, following their passions [and not worrying since] the world has been standing for such a long time and has always remained (Luther’s Works 30:191-193).
Because of these assaults, Luther not only thought that we should watch out for these false teachers, but also that we should constantly be occupied, “day to day [with] God’s Word” (LW 30:199).
Christ at the Gates
And in God’s word we’re not left in the dark. For in Mark 13:7-29 Jesus explains in over 20 verses that just as it’s a sign that summer’s on its way when the fig tree “puts forth its leaves,” so Christ is “at the very gates,” and ready to enter in and judge us, when we
hear of wars and rumors of wars, [and there are] earthquakes in various places [and famines], [and] the gospel is being preached to all nations, [and] Christians are being hated by all for Jesus’ sake, [and] false Christs and false prophets… arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect…. And when the sun [is] darkened, and the moon [doesn’t] give its light, and the stars [are] falling from heaven.
This list of indicators is striking to say the least. But equally striking is the fact, that for generations and generations there have been those who have bet money on knowing, and have mounted worldwide campaigns because they were sure they knew, the hour and day when Christ was returning (John MacArthur, The Second Coming, 1999). Most noteworthy among these debacles is the case of William Miller (1782-1849) who said Christ was returning on October 22, 1844 – and when he didn’t, moved it to the same day the next year. This double failure was then called “the great disappointment.” Others predicted Christ’s return in 1874, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1941, 1975, 1988 and in 1999. And in our day, Harold Camping predicted it on May 21, 2011 (“Radio Host Says He Was Off on Rapture by 5 Months,” The Seattle Times, May 24, 2011).
Since all these predictions leave out our Lord’s words in Mark 13:32 that no one can know the exact day and time of his return – even with these indicators – the preoccupation over knowing the exact day and time is nothing but sin. So if you’re caught up in it, repent in Jesus’ name and give up this fool’s errand. Luther, mind you, was even caught-up in this – thinking that all the degradation around him was a sure sign that Christ was returning during his life time (LW 35:315-316). And Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – who could be called the Danish Luther – sympathized, writing that
to be a true Christian is so agonizing that it would not be endurable if one did not continually expect Christ’s second coming as imminent, [and not] coming sometime many centuries hence (Journals, 1:340).
A Brood of Serpents
Even so, fixating on the exact time of Christ’s return is like looking at a car crash – we can’t seem to stop doing it. And that’s because we’re so corrupt. Luther spells this out with fierce sarcasm [Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 vols, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 5:301]:
There is nought in man but… all manner of mischief. Indeed his nature is nothing else than a liar…. And why?.... The heart is not good; therefore also the rivers flowing therefrom cannot be good. Hence does the Lord oftimes call men a generation of vipers and a brood of serpents. Is not this a beautiful title for man?
This devastating view of ourselves
renders us helpless to improve our lot in life. That’s why
Left to ourselves, there surely would be no hope for us – “no counsel, no help, no comfort,” as the catechism puts it (BC, p. 414). But thanks be to God we are not left with just this! So, “cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). “Set your hope fully upon… Jesus Christ,” by whom “you were ransomed from [your] futile ways… with [his] precious blood” (1 Peter 1:13, 18). Then, sing with Luther that “Christ is the greatest and highest person” who ever lived (SML 5:331). That’s because
through his suffering and death [he makes] satisfaction for sins and [pays] for them. This is the price that has been set, and… by which… the wrath of God [is] appeased, the Father has been reconciled [deus placatus, LW 30:280; 12:377] and made our friend. Christians alone… believe… this, [and so are] different from… every other [religion]…. For it is ordained that no one shall… find grace… except through Christ. [So] you will not find anything in your heart with which you can pay [your sins] off, nor… for which God might… cancel your debt…. But if you seize Christ as the one who has become your substitute [LW 22:167],… no sin can avail anything against you (SML 5:221-222).
No wonder then that Luther adds that when Christ entered as the only Savior, it disrupted the peace of that famous, ancient “Pantheon, or the church of all gods,” which “had more… idolatries than a dog has fleas.” And so everyone “went quite mad [and] slew the apostles and martyrs” (LW 34:213). But don’t let that stop you from believing in Christ. And don’t let that stop you from receiving him today in the Lord’s Supper. For as Luther says, a Christian life isn’t normal, but far “above natural life,” noting that
first, it despises self; secondly, it loves and thirsts for contempt; thirdly, it punishes everything that is unwilling to be despised, by which it resigns itself to all misfortune; fourthly, it is also despised and persecuted on account of such contempt and punishment; [and] fifthly, it does not think itself worthy to suffer such persecution (SML 5:96).
Wow! But recall – we’re supposed to be “aliens” (1 Peter 2:11)!
Hasten His Return
So, having seized Christ through faith, and having come to an understanding of how peculiar being a Christian is (1 Peter 2:9, KJV), let us not think that faith “is a sleepy, lazy thing in the soul, [but] a thoroughly… powerful thing [that] creates [an altogether] new heart, [and] a new man.” And let us also recall that “the Holy Spirit is given us, who kindles a new… fire in us, namely, love and [the] desire to do God’s commandments” (SML 5:65, 189)!
On this day, then, heed the implied command to “eagerly await” Christ’s return (Hebrews 9:28) – even though we don’t know when that will be. But let us still do so in order that we might actually “hasten” its coming (2 Peter 3:12). And we should want to do this because on that day evil will end (Romans 6:6) and all will defer to Christ (Philippians 2:9-11). And that would surely be a better state of affairs (Hebrews 11:16)! And that’s why, even though we don’t know exactly when Christ will return, we should still hope – and every day – that today is the day he returns. Amen.