THE LAST SUNDAY OF THE CHURCH YEAR - Nov. 25th, 2018
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
Antiphon: Isaiah 35:10
Psalm: Psalm 39:4-5,7-8
Old Testament: Isaiah 65:17-25
Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
The Sunday School teachers some time ago started a wall in the choir room with icons and portraits of saints, martyrs and prophets of the church. The kids know this is no idolatry, as with the papists. It’s simply that there is great benefit in remembering the saints whom God has given to His church. We see the mercy that God extended to these saints. And we have examples of courageous men and women that we might imitate their faith and holy life, according to where God had placed us, in our own vocations.
So across the wall you may see St. Mary or St. John. Or St. Augustine, Ambrose, or Monica. It’s not so different than having pictures on your wall remembering your sainted fathers or Christian mothers. Of course, you don’t pray to them, but you do remember them, honor them, and learn from them. In this, the Sunday School children can remember that we’re not alone. That we have a very large family, being joined together in the body of Christ. They can remember that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, of which we made a special point of commemorating on All Saints day a few weeks ago.
One such saint worth remembering and perhaps putting up a picture of is Philip Nicolai, Lutheran pastor, writer and composer of the hymn we just sang. While serving in Westphalia, west Germany, the plague took 1,400 of his own parishioners, mostly in the latter half of 1597. Just consider that! At the height of the plague, he personally buried 170 men, women, and little children in a single week. What sadness! What incomprehensible grief!
Just imagine Pastor Nicolai from his parsonage overlooking the churchyard, with mounds of fresh dirt, covering his own family, his friends, and beloved parishioners. Hardly a day went by without a member from the church dying. Imagine pastor Nicolai looking out upon that scene of bitter death as far as the eye could see.
In those days of deep distress, when every household was in mourning, Nicolai's thoughts turned to the call of the bridegroom, and God in heaven. He could have fled the plague but he didn’t. He stayed and he did his duty. He guarded his post. He prayed. He preached. He kept vigil with the sick and dying. He baptized, and he buried. He comforted those in sorrow with the Gospel. He served as a watchman and pointed his parishioners beyond this valley tears toward a much happier place; namely the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus.
To comfort his parishioners amid deep sadness, Pastor Nicolai wrote a series of meditations which he called Freudenspiegel (or Mirror of Joy), and to this he added a couple hymns: O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright and Wake, Awake for Night is Flying. If you think about Lutherans hymns, and consider what’s being sung, you’ll simply know that these two hymns, they just fly higher. You might call them the king and queen of Lutheran chorales. Music is such an amazing gift of God, when used in service to His glory. Married to God’s Word, it transports us, it lifts us up, it points us beyond the skies, it provides rest and refreshment, and for a few measures fuses heaven and earth.
Nicolai’s hymn which we just sang begins with watchmen crying, “Wake, awake!” It was the duty of watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem to do sentry duty. They would look out far into the distance and be on guard against disaster, such as enemy soldiers or fire or trouble. The watchmen, on the heights of the walls of Jerusalem also had the great privilege of being the heralds of good news, such as welcoming the victorious King David and his army returning. In this case, however, the watchmen in this hymn “wake, awake,” rejoice as they awaken the whole city to greet victorious King Jesus, with armies of angels descending from heaven, coming to save. The hymn pictures the hosts of heaven and earth singing to the accompaniment of harp and cymbal—singing joyfully to welcome the Bridegroom – and the great consummation of all things under Christ.
Philip Nicolai was the watchmen of Westphalia. “Wake, awake,” he would preach, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. Keep your lamps burning!” He was a watchmen and herald of good news, who had the privilege amid devastating loss to point his parishioners to the Morning Star and the Bridegroom to arise and close out this age and bring about a new heavens and a new earth.
Dear Christians, all too often, we think of End Times (if we think of it at all) as the stuff of religious fundamentalists whose proclamation of the Second Coming casts an ominous rather than a joyful tone. This gets things all wrong. The glorious appearing of Christ will be a reason to rejoice and not to fear. It’s our comfort for every sorrow and the ultimate answer to all our prayers. This joyful confidence in the breaking-in of God’s kingdom in Christ is the source of inspiration for Nicolai’s hymns, and J.S. Bach’s sacred cantatas. The glorious appearing and coming of Jesus is the reason we Christians are able to sing at all.
Like Nicolai, you are no stranger to suffering and heart wrenching loss. You’ve seen cancer and strokes. You’ve seen the onslaught of old age, and the frailty of this mortal flesh, under the curse of sin in this fallen world. You’ve seen bodies pile up and mounds of dirt scattered on caskets of those you love. Like those folks in Westphalia, we’ve all been tempted toward despair, dozing off, and falling away.
But God also sends to you pastor’s, watchmen sent by God, to scatter dirt in the shape of the cross over those graves. To remind you to trim your wicks and keep your lamps burning.
Wake, awake, for night is flying. The end of all things is at hand. Sufferings and troubles, they look to the world like chaos and terror, but for the Christian, buried beneath tears is joy. For the midnight call and welcome voices are Christ and his angels. Jesus said: I go and prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
So be watchful and ready like the five wise virgins, for the arrival of the bridegroom will be sudden and unexpected.
The lamps you carry, they are the Word of Christ. The oil in the lamps is the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word to create and sustain the flame of faith in Christ.
The foolish virgins, quite simply, are those who do not give proper attention to the working of the Holy Spirit in baptism, preaching, and the holy supper, and so their faith does not endure. They become drowsy and distracted with the cares of this world. Faith flickers and is snuffed out.
But the wise virgins, they are those who diligently attend to these gifts of the Spirit, and who therefore have an abundance of oil. They meet the bridegroom with the appropriate celebration, where he wants to be found from the pulpit, from the font, and altar rail, and of course, in our sacrificial love for each other. For those virgins made wise unto salvation, the flame of faith endures to the end. They are virgin pure – undefiled, washed and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.
By God’s grace they are received into the eternal wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth created by the Lord for the joy of His people. May God in his mercy, make watchmen of us all, like Philip Nicolai, that we would eagerly watch for Christ. And may God in his kindness give to us all the same eagerness for our own last day, namely that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. Amen!