Safety in a Dangerous Place
Saint Luke 17:20-30
We’re nearing the end of the Church Year. Advent will soon be upon us, and then Christmas. Things are moving fast and you can’t help but wonder, “Will I be ready for it?” Will I be ready when that big day arrives?
It’s important to be ready for the coming of Christmas and the celebration of our Lord’s birth, but here on this antepenultimate day, this Third-Last Sunday of the Church Year, our Lord is with us, with His Word, to remind us of our need to be ready for the ultimate day, the day of His coming to judge the living and the dead.
The Christians in the Thessalonian Church at the time of Saint Paul worried that they wouldn’t be ready for our Lord’s return—that He’d come and they’d be busy doing something, and they’d miss it and miss out on heaven and eternal life. They knew that everything that Jesus had said about the signs of the end times were already taking place. There were “wars and rumors of war,” nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There were “famines and earthquakes in various places,” and Christians were facing persecution because of their faith in Christ. Certain that the last day was coming at any moment, a number of those Thessalonian Christians parked themselves in lawn chairs up on the flat roofs of their homes, so they would be sure to see Jesus coming down through the clouds.
As we heard today, Saint Paul tells them that when Jesus comes they will know it. They don’t need to be on the rooftop; they can be down in the cellar and they will still know it. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command,” the Apostle tells them, “with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
Saint Paul assures you that no one deserving of eternal life and salvation, of both the living and the dead, will be left behind. But who is deserving of this? Who will be saved from the destruction that is to come—from the eternal death and damnation that will fall upon all who are not raised up to be with Jesus when He returns? In Matthew 24 Jesus says, “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”
Do you know what our Lord means by this—what He means by enduring to the end? Well, of course, He means to endure in the faith—to keep believing in Him despite all of the terrible things that are going on in this world that work against believing and trusting in God’s Son for your life now and for all eternity. But what terrible things are those? What might cause you to abandon your faith in Christ? Worries and fear about getting shot and killed if you go to church, as happened last Sunday in Texas? Anxiety about the rising persecution of Christians? Well, yes. Maybe. But what is more likely to be a threat and danger to your faith are all the faith-destroying things going on around us all the time to which we’ve become accustomed—which we don’t look upon as the great threat that they are.
In today’s Holy Gospel, Jesus is asked by some Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come, and basically He tells them that there will be no advance notice—no four-minute warning such as the Brits put in place during the Cold War to signal that nukes have been launched against them. “Behold,” Jesus says to them, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” There’s no time to duck and cover. Fulfilled is the prophecy of Joel, who said, “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” In a very real sense, Judgment Day is upon those Pharisees right then and there, for the Lord has come to them and, sadly, they do not believe.
Faith is always about right now, isn’t it? We baptize our children not with the hope of a faith that they will one day come to claim on their own, but with the certainty that God the Holy Spirit gives and bestows true faith right then and there in the water and the Word. And on Judgment Day, those who once believed, but subsequently turned away from Christ, will not be able to appeal the verdict based on what once was. Faith is always a now thing. The day of grace is upon you now. The Lord God says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you,” to which the Apostle Paul adds, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
The Pharisees of our text had every opportunity to believe and be saved. They were of God’s holy people of old, and they had the Word of God that foretold the coming of Christ. But yet they did not believe because the things of this world overruled in their hearts what the Word of God spoke to them—just as the things of this world overruled the truth of God’s Word in the hearts of the people in the days of Noah, “and the flood came and destroyed them all.” Or as it was in the days of Lot when “fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all”—all the unbelieving people of Sodom. And the things of this world that overruled the Gospel in their hearts and kept them from believing were faith-destroying things going on around them each and every day—things to which they had become accustomed and looked upon as part and parcel of the normal way of life.
Jesus says that in the day of Noah, the unbelieving people who perished in the flood were “eating and drinking and marrying and giving into marriage.” Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it? And with the people of Sodom, they were “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building”—also activities quite innocuous and routine. But yet, they were condemned by God for it—they were condemned for the unbelieving evil in the routine of their lives.
Before God called upon Noah to build the ark, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And this is the way it was as they went about their lives “eating and drinking and marrying and giving into marriage.” The people of Sodom went about “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building,” immersed in a culture of sexual perversion that Saint Paul refers to as “the sensual conduct of the wicked.” To the Sodomites their wicked and perverse conduct was perfectly normal and acceptable.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man,” and just as it was “on the day when Lot went out from Sodom … so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” In other words, from then—from that time of our text until Jesus returns on the Last Day, life will go on, and every day people will eat and drink, buy and sell, plant and build and marry, yet in all of that normal, routine, commonplace stuff there will be great wickedness and evil going on. And as our Lord says in Matthew 24, “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” Faith will be put to the test, and many will fall away.
This is the way it is with our world now, isn’t it? Some people of our day and age rejoice and celebrate a devil-inspired perversity of life and take pride in it. Unborn babies are murdered and the government condones it and defends it as an inviolate right. Add to that now euthanasia, or so-called mercy killing, and we’re fed the line that this, too, is a good thing. It seems almost like there’s an organized campaign to convince everyone that this sort of wickedness is acceptable and good. And, sadly, many have given in to the indoctrination and become inure to the crassness and vulgarity and baseness into which our society has fallen. And even good, Christian people like you have begun to take it all in stride, accepting that this is just the way things are.
When you become accepting of wickedness, dear brothers and sisters—when the perversity of the age no longer offends you—that’s when you’re an easy target for the devil, the one who’s ultimately behind the way things have become in this world. The old evil foe wants no one to endure to the end and be saved. He wants everyone to perish eternally, and the best way for him to achieve his satanic goal is to make things the way they were in the days of Noah and in Sodom, where perversion and debauchery is not just tolerated as evil to be endured, but embraced as normal. The greatest danger to your faith is to think that sin, the killer and destroyer of faith, is of no concern.
Thus, as was pointed out on Reformation Sunday, your entire life as a Christian must be a life of repentance. It’s vital that you understand the effect that the world’s wickedness has upon you, that you daily hold up God’s Commandments as a mirror to show you the sin in your life, and that you turn to Jesus, your Saviour for the forgiveness that He purchased and won for you on the cross with His innocent suffering and death. This, dear friends, is how you endure in the faith unto the end. Put not your trust in your own efforts and merit, for as you heard the patriarch Job say, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” No, you endure by remaining in Jesus—by being devoted to His Word and Sacraments, through which He freely gives you the forgiveness of your sins and the strength for your faith that you need so desperately in this wicked and sinful world.
The world in which you live is most certainly a harsh wilderness filled with great danger for your soul, but because of Christ and His gracious presence with you, by the grace of God, through the power and working of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you, and it is a refuge and mighty fortress to preserve you and keep you alive and safe, now and forever. You are forgiven and made righteous, in the name of Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.