Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:40 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end tomorrow? Or next week? Or next month? What would you do if you knew for certain the day when this world would end? Maybe you’ve read a book, or seen a movie or a television show, where someone gets a diagnosis of a fatal, an incurable disease. That person is suddenly shaken out of old ways of thinking, forced to reconsider priorities, to put things in their proper perspectives. Maybe they start to do all the things they’ve always wanted to do, but never had the opportunity to do, because they know that their world is coming to an end.
What would you do? The fact is, Christians do know with certainty that the world is coming to an end. We do not, of course, know the date or the time. Jesus is very clear about that. But we do know that it is coming, and we cannot know when. It could be today or tomorrow, or it could be in a hundred years or more. But it is coming. And St. Paul wants us to think about that. He says that the time is shortened; it has been limited. That seems to be not so much on God’s side of things, as if God had one date in mind, but now it’s different or nearer. But it is surely on our side of things, that the time is shortened. Every single moment, every single day, we are one more moment and one more day closer to the end. The time grows shorter every second. And it is far shorter than it was when St. Paul wrote these words.
If that’s the case, then what should Christians do? How should we live now that we know that the end of this world as it is is nearer than it was? Isn’t it the case that we often look around and say, “The end can’t be far off. God can’t let things go on like this for much longer. We must be getting close now.” For the Christian, that is always true, no matter at what time we live. So what should we do with that knowledge? Paul has some suggestions: those who have wives should live as though they had none; those who weep as if they were not weeping; those who rejoice as if they were not rejoicing; those who buy as though they have no possessions; those who use the things of the world as if they did not have use of them.
This all seems like strange advice. Is Paul a secret Buddhist, telling us that what’s really wrong with the world is that we’re attached to all this stuff, and that’s what causes suffering? So the solution is not to be attached to wives or husbands, to the stuff in this world? No; that would contradict what we heard from him last week, that bodies are good things, and they are meant for resurrection. That’s a physical and concrete hope, not one that thinks that physical attachments are bad or evil. Is he telling us to get out of marriages, or to never use the things in this world, or to leave everything behind and go hide out until the world ends? No. He’s simply putting everything in its right place, set against the horizon of eternity.
We do not view the things of this world as evil, but as temporal. They are temporary, all the things that Paul mentions. He says that the present form of this world is passing away. It is the same thing that Peter and John preach. Peter says that all the things in this creation will be purged by fire; but, he says, according to His promise, we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. And since this is the way it’s going, what sort of people ought we to be, longing for and hastening the Day? The time is short; how should we be?
And John says that the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. I like the Bob Dylan song where he says that it’s “not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” That does seem to be what’s happening, but John tells us what’s really happening: the darkness is on its way out, and Christ, the true light, is already shining. He says this age is passing away with its desires, and the one who is doing the will of God will remain into the new age, into eternity. The time is short; how should we be?
Paul, along with Peter and John, are reminding us not to get too far in, too deep, too rooted in this world. The form of this world is passing away, and the time is short. There is a new heavens and a new earth coming, but it’s not here yet. In this world, in this age, we cannot pull apart the good creation of God from sin and death. They are hopelessly inseparable. But the day is coming when sin and death will finally be no more. Jesus has already destroyed them in His own life and death and body; and He Himself is the beginning of the new, resurrection life and creation.
That day is coming, but it’s not here yet. So do not think that you can hang on to the things in this world, even if they’re good. Even the best of God’s creation gifts are not going to last into eternity. You can’t take any of it with you. Even the first of those gifts after the creation of life, the gift that points to the very love between Christ and the Church, even marriage is not eternal. Jesus says that in the age to come there will not be marrying and giving in marriage. Even this good gift is for this creation. It is a sign of life in the midst of death, but it is for this creation.
Likewise, Paul knows that we both weep and rejoice. He is not telling us to stoically accept life as it comes, refusing to show any emotion. We do weep, and we do rejoice. But we do not weep as if the people and things over whom and over which we weep are the goal of everything, so that if we’ve lost these things, we’ve lost everything. Don’t be tied to them, as if they were eternal. And we rejoice, but our rejoicing is not so tied to this world that when it ends, so does our joy.
Our life, along with our joy, is only in Christ and His life, which is not bound to this creation as it is. And our weeping, our grief, our mourning will come to their end when we have the joy of Christ in its fullness. So they are not eternal. Nothing in this age is. It is all passing away. So it is, also, with the things of this world of which we make use. We may buy or sell; we may use food and the good created gifts of God for what we need to use them for, the very purposes for which He has given them: for our life, and for our families, and for the good of those around us. But none of that is eternal. It’s all temporary, passing away.
We do not belong in this creation as it is, because we do not belong in the midst of sin and death. Those, especially, are coming to their end. We are sojourners, travelers, like Israel on its way through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of promise. We are made for that land, not for this. So we use the daily bread from God, and we wait until He brings us into that eternal land of promise.
The time is short; what should we be? We have two examples in our readings for today. When Jonah comes to Ninevah—finally—and he preaches to them that their world is coming to an end, what do they do? Their world is coming to an end; God is going to send destruction on them, and Jonah hopes he’s there to see it. But it doesn’t come. They repent; they confess their sins in sackcloth and ashes, begging the mercy of God. And He gives it to them. Repentance is the first response to the coming end of the world; confession of our sins and receiving of God’s absolution in Christ.
And when Jesus enters the world of Peter and Andrew and James and John—and when God enters this world, this world’s days are numbered—what do they do? Immediately they leave their nets and their boats and their father and follow Jesus. Because He is the one who is walking the way of this age and this world, into death, and opening the way into the new age, the world to come. All of the stuff that meant so much to them is only so much marrying, buying, using, with weeping and rejoicing. But here is Jesus, and He alone has the life that is not bound by the form of this world. So they follow.
Repentance and following Jesus; that’s what follows the announcement that this world is coming to its end. When we start to think that the end cannot be far off, this is where that thought should lead us: O God, have mercy on me, a sinner! And He does. And we follow Jesus through this world into the next. We have a continual temptation to think that it is the things we can see and touch and taste and feel that are eternal, though we know very well that they decay and are used up. Paul tells us that it is exactly the opposite: the things we cannot see, Christ, life, resurrection, God, these are the things that are eternal. “And therefore we must cling inseparably to eternal treasures, but things temporal we must use like passers-by, that as we are sojourners hastening to return to our own land, all the good things of this world which meet us may be as aids on the way, not snares to detain us” (Leo the Great, Sermon 90.3). The time is short; come quickly, Lord Jesus, and lead us into the age eternal!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/22/21