When I was a child, our best friends were our cousins. We got to visit with them just often enough that they were lots of fun, but not so often that they became just like brothers and sisters. When I look back on those times, I wonder how our parents stood it because sometimes we would just reach critical mass and the energy level would get higher than one house should have to endure. In fact, now that I think about it, there were times that one of the adults would suddenly appear and ask us to take it outside.
We often met at Grandma's house out in the country. Because of the terrain, Grandma's house was built in the middle of the farm and there was a long lane to and from the road. If we got to Grandma's house before the other cousins, we would go upstairs and search through the window out to where the lane turned off from the county road.
We would check out the cars as they came by on the county road. "Does that one look like Uncle Ray's car? Is it the cousins?" Then the car would drive on by. Then another car would come. "Wait, no, it's a pickup truck." Finally, a Buick would turn off the road and the house would explode with, "They're here! They're here! They're here!" We would run down the stairs and into the front yard and wait for the Buick to pull up and unload some cousins. And then the party began.
As explosive as that situation was, it was a mere shadow of the anticipation and longing that the church experiences as it waits for the return of the Lord. For the Holy Christian Church waits in eager anticipation for her groom Jesus Christ to arrive in heavenly royal splendor to take her home to live with Him forever. Even the cacophony of COUSINS will pale before that joyful day.
In tonight's Gospel, Jesus encourages us to be ready for that day of great joy. As we gather here a few hours away from the end of this year, it is appropriate that we consider the end of all our years here on this earth. It is appropriate for us to consider the beginning of all our eternities.
Jesus asked His hearers to imagine the slaves of a household who were waiting for their master to return home from a wedding reception. In that day and age, there were no means of instant communication. The slaves learned what time their master was coming home when he showed up at the door and knocked.
He also asked them to imagine that He would come like a thief - unexpected. Another time, Jesus said, [Matthew 24:27] For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. The idea is that the end of our days here on this earth will most likely be a surprise.
Our experience agrees with this. Think of all the news stories you can remember - motor cycles encountering bridge abutments, passenger cars encountering concrete trucks and perfectly innocent families encountering drunk drivers - tornadoes and earthquakes reducing towns to kindling - hurricanes and tsunamis converting cities into swamps - airplanes converting skyscrapers into rubble. Experience teaches us to expect death in unexpected ways and unexpected places.
Yet there are some who reject this message. There are some who live as though they will never die - as though Jesus will never return. Some think they are immune. These disasters happen to other people, not them. They still have lots of time. Other things are more urgent. Jesus is not going to return for a long time. Death is far off.
When I was an engineer, one of my co-workers told me, "I'm too young to become a Christian, now. Later on, when I am closer to death, then I'll convert. I've got plenty of time and I want to have a little fun before then."
Perhaps some of this is natural. After all, God did not create us to die. When He created Adam and Eve, they were supposed to live forever. It was not until sin entered the world and brought death with it that we needed to prepare for the end of our time on this earth.
At first it may seem that preparation is beyond our grasp. We are sinners. Preparation for the coming of the Holy God requires a holy people. We don't know what it means to keep our lamps burning. How do we stay awake until the master returns? This all seems impossible.
This is where God reminds us that when it comes to our salvation, He does all the work. We are prepared for the end because He prepares us. In fact, during this Christmas season, we celebrate the beginning of the preparation.
God prepared us when He took on a human nature. He experienced everything we experience, but without sin. He began with a normal period of gestation in Mary's womb and then birth. He grew up as all boys did in that day. When He became a man, He began a ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching. His ministry culminated in a false arrest, several unjust trials, and ultimately death by crucifixion. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He did all these things to prepare us for His second coming - the day when He will come again to judge the world.
His life as a human was perfect in every way and with this life He prepared a righteousness to give to us. When Jesus died on the cross, He withstood God's penalty against our sin. In this way, He prepared us so that we appear perfect in God's eyes. God no longer sees our sin.
God not only prepares His gifts for us, but He also prepares our hearts for us. The Holy Spirit works through Holy Scripture and the Holy Sacraments to produce faith in our hearts. The faith He prepares, allows us to receive all the gifts Jesus prepared for us with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
This means that when Jesus asks us to be ready, He is really only asking us to be the way He made us with His redeeming work as received through the Holy Spirit's gift of faith. We are ready when the Holy Spirit produces faith in us to believe that Jesus Christ gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation with His holy life, innocent suffering and death, and triumphant resurrection.
To be ready as Jesus tells us in tonight's Gospel is to do nothing that He has not already told us to do. He said, [John 15:4-5] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Here He tells us that He does the work - that He provides the nutrition that sustains our souls. Again He said, [John 11:25] "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Here He tells us that all who have the Holy Spirit's gift of faith in Him, are ready.
The preparation that God has made in us will change us. The same Holy Spirit who works saving faith in us will renew our life so that salvation working in us will give us a desire to overcome sin and do good works. The salvation that God gives us not only benefits us, but it also benefits others as we share our salvation with the people we meet every day. We become a source of encouragement as the Holy Spirit uses us to strengthen the faith of our fellow believers. We also become a source of salvation as the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God that we share with unbelievers to bring saving faith to them.
As this year comes to an end, we give thanks to almighty God that He has made us ready for the end of our time in this world. As the New Year begins, we ask God to work in us to keep us ready and to work through us to prepare others. Let us joyfully gather together here as He shares heaven with us in His Divine Service and look forward with joy to His eternal Divine Service in heaven. Amen.
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