The Scripture readings for the last Sundays of our church year help us look to the end of time.
It’s the one appointment we all share—same place, same time—but it isn’t on any of our calendars. None of us are exempt, and no commitment or excuse will allow a single one of us to be anywhere else. We will all be present and accounted for, along with everyone we have ever met as well as all those we haven’t. We will all be there on the Last Day, when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, just as we confess in our creeds so many times. When is it? None of us knows.
At the same time, Last Judgment is on my calendar. Your congregation also may have a thematic worship plan that will focus on the Last Judgment. It’s part of the season of End Times. The readings of the lectionary at the end of the church year remind us of the promises God has made for all of us. Beginning with Reformation, the season ends with the reminders of Christ’s rule of his church as King of all and includes one Sunday set aside as Last Judgment Sunday.
The wisdom of the church year
Our New Testament worship schedule isn’t nearly so clearly defined as the one God gave his Old Testament people, a calendar they were to keep from the time of Moses until the coming of the Savior. Back then God gave his people the days, times, and rituals they were to observe—not as a way of gaining favor with him, but as a powerful annual reminder of his plans for his people. Their church calendar told the same story every year—a story of sin and grace, of forgiveness through substitutionary sacrifice. It gave God’s people a reason to rejoice in victory now and forever as those who were graciously chosen and eternally saved through faith in the promised Messiah.
Now that Jesus has come as the fulfillment of every prophecy and has made the sin-cleansing sacrifice as the Lamb of God, many of our reminders throughout the church year look back on what our Savior has done for us. We find our Sabbath rest in the accomplished work of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and hell. We are no longer bound to the same festivals and rites of those who waited for Immanuel. Instead we rejoice to see God’s plan more fully than Abraham, Moses, David, or Isaiah ever did.
Even in our Christian freedom, many churches choose to retain the structure of a church year. Just like God’s Old Testament people had their harvest festivals that overflowed with the symbolism of salvation, we too find value in repeating the salvation story. Just as God’s watchful people celebrated a Festival of Trumpets, a great Day of Atonement, and a Festival of Tabernacles, so we still center our worship around harvest time on what is yet to come.
The Sundays of End Times
For us, the operative word is freedom. End Times is not a mandatory observance. Still, it is good for us to consider intently the plans that God has yet to fulfill but are no less certain than the promises he already kept. Here’s how Christian Worship lays out the Sundays of End Times.
The first Sunday is to celebrate the Reformation. It might seem odd that before we look ahead, we look back five hundred years. On the other hand, what better way to prepare for the end than to find peace in knowing that God has been working throughout history to see that the gospel message will not be silenced? How are we ready to stand before God? Only by grace alone, through faith alone—truths based on Scripture alone, which points us to Christ alone.
The second Sunday concentrates on the Last Judgment, that appointment we all share. My sinful nature still gets awfully nervous at the thought of being judged finally and eternally. Yet the One who will decide our fates has already determined them. Through his shed blood and his empty grave, the Good Shepherd will proclaim before the nations that we are his beloved sheep. Not a single one of us will be lost. We will not hesitate to bow on our knees and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Saints Triumphant, the next Sunday, points us to believers in heaven. If you are like me, the older we get, the more we look forward to living in glory. We peek into heaven through God’s Word and see Christian loved ones who have already been transferred from the church militant to the church triumphant. As much as we might miss them now, our hearts leap at the reminder that one day we will join them, because their Savior is our Savior too.
Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year, ends the church year on a high note, as we delight in the reminder that our Lord and King, the Alpha and the Omega, reigns now and forever. In our world, it’s easy to be distracted from the truths that all things are under his control, his plans for us are eternally wise, and he is ruling all things for the good of his church.
From looking ahead to looking around
To be sure, the lectionary readings throughout End Times urge us to look up longingly as we await our Savior’s return. Then he will bring about the new heaven and the new earth. Still, we ought to take away a practical encouragement to use the time that we have left. As we look at every list of signs of the end times that Jesus gave his disciples, we can’t help but realize that we are indeed living in the last times. I believe that one of the main reasons Jesus gave those signs was so that we would see them and get to work.
We don’t know how much time we have. As long as we remain in the faith that his Spirit has worked in us, our eternity is secure. But now look around. We all have people in our lives who do not have the same confidence. Some of them were raised in the church but have since wandered. Others feel like the here and now is enough. Still others never had a friend or family member who cared enough to share the hope that is ours.
That’s where we come in. When is the last time you had a real conversation with an unbeliever? When is the last time you invited an acquaintance or coworker to join you in church? When is the last time you reached out with a gentle nudge of biblical encouragement to a family member whose worship life has become lax or inconsistent?
The season of End Times, as much as any other, reminds us to use each day to pray for mission work and participate in it! God gathers his saints through the work of the church. That’s us! The end is near. We need to get busy.
Author: Eric D. Schroeder
Volume 106, Number 11
Issue: November 2019