Here's today's homily, for both the Last Sunday in the Church Year and my last Sunday in the pulpit before sabbatical leave (I'll preach yet at Thursday's Thanksgiving Day Matins service).
Looking for Fulfillment
Trinity 27 – Sunday of the Fulfillment
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 & Matthew 25:1-13
Christ is risen! [R: He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!] I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that, were you? But today gives us quite a mixture of messages—a little resurrection of Easter’s joy of new life in Jesus mixed with a healthy dose of eager anticipation for Jesus to come again in glory. After all, that’s when we’ll get to see and live the fulfillment of our Lord’s Easter victory over sin and death.
And there’s more. In the Gospel reading, we hear of the wise and foolish virgins and the oil of faith as they await the Bridegroom’s coming. Jesus says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the Epistle reading, we hear St. Paul’s exhortation on just how to wait for the Lord to “come like a thief in the night”—he calls us to be sober in our waiting and to put on the armor of faith and love and the hope of salvation yet to come. In the Old Testament reading, we hear God’s promise of what lies ahead: a “new heavens and new earth”; all joy, no more sadness; all life, no more death; all prosperity, no more need; all peace, no more conflict. And on top of all that, today is the last Sunday that I will be with you for the next six months. As you know, effective next Sunday I’ll be on sabbatical leave, a time for resting, reading, praying, and getting rejuvenated so that I can return and continue serving as your pastor.
How do all of these messages meld together to comfort and edify us today? On this “Sunday of the Fulfillment” we look forward to fulfillment, to full life, real life, restored life, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now, I’m going to stray a bit from one of my cardinal rules of preaching—I’m going to insert myself a bit this morning. No, I don’t like putting myself front and center in a sermon, let alone in the spotlight in general, but I also don’t want to ignore what’s on your mind on this last Sunday with you for a while.
As you heard two weeks ago, when the Elders announced my sabbatical leave, I’ve been wrestling with depression and burnout. I used to think that depression was mostly a matter of “having a bad day” or something. But I’ve learned that it comes as a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. For someone with depression even the best of days and happiest of circumstances can seem shrouded in cloudy gloom. For me that gloom has been going by the name of “Apathy.” My motto has been: “Ah, what’s the point?” I know that’s not the “normal me,” but I can’t just shake it with a burst of willpower. And the burnout? One source explained burnout this way: “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people” (Oswald, 59). Yep, that’s been me.
Why do I focus on such things on this Last Sunday of the Church Year? No, not to get you to think, “Poor, Pastor.” Please don’t. Though I do appreciate all of your support, your well wishes, and especially your prayers. Instead, I bring this up because it illustrates the need we all have—the need for our Savior to return and “graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” You see, there may not be a big “S” emblazoned on my clerical shirts – you know, for “Superpastor” – and I know you’ve never seen that big “S” – but we pastors like to think we can do anything and be everything for every one else—run faster than a speeding sermon deadline, be more powerful than a hectic schedule, and leap tall buildings of personal crises in a single bound. However, I, your pastor, am realizing just how finite and limited I am. Yes, we all need such reminders. Yes, we all need the Savior who loves us and strengthens us. Yes, we all need the Bridegroom to come and usher us into His “new heavens and new earth.” Oh, I am so looking forward to His return and to our new life with Him!
When we started making plans for this sabbatical leave, one brother pastor wrote some comforting words in an email. I will always appreciate and treasure them. He said, “The Day is not far off when Jesus will make all things new forever, including us. God grant you already now greater glimpses of the coming rest and joy. Meanwhile, we’ll keep on limping along together on this pilgrimage, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, finding life and strength in Him.” That’s the message of this Sunday of Fulfillment. We may be “limping along,” but we’re also looking forward to our Lord’s fulfillment of all of His promises, His new, full, real, restored life.
For now we’re all “limping along together on this pilgrimage.” St. Paul hints at this in our second reading. The world thinks there is “peace and security” in the things of the world—a new president soon to take office, a stock market rally here and there, or a profitable holiday shopping season. And we Christians too often go “limping along” in trying to find our peace and security in this fallen world. But, as St. Paul says, “sudden destruction will come upon them.” It’s the same thing Jesus had to tell His disciples once (Mk. 13:1-2). As He and they came out of the temple after worship, one disciple marveled at the wonderful buildings and the wonderful stones. But Jesus had to remind them—and us—not to put confidence in such things, because, after all, it will all come crashing down on the Last Day. So St. Paul urges us to “keep awake and be sober.” We are but pilgrims passing through this fallen world. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). I don’t know about you, but when I—fallen, frail, limited, and limping human being that I am—hear that, I can’t help but eagerly hope and pray for it.
That’s the oil in the lamps of the wise virgins in our Gospel reading—the oil of faith. No, not just any old generic faith. No, not just faith in any old thing that comes along. Notice what those virgins were waiting for—the coming of the Bridegroom. Those wise virgins had a plentiful supply of faith in the Son of God who loved them and gave Himself for them. You see, the Bridegroom has already demonstrated His great love for us, His bride, the Church. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him” (1 Jn. 4:9). This Bridegroom, Jesus the Son of God, took on our human flesh—our flesh so shackled by any number of frailties and sicknesses and weaknesses, our flesh so prone to “limping along” in things such as depression and burnout and focusing on the fickle peace and security offered by the world. So the Son of the living God, our Lord Jesus, has restored our frail flesh. He, fully God and fully Man, also went to the cross to shed His blood for us. In His blood we find forgiveness and salvation from sin. In His death and resurrection we find healing, wholeness, and life—full life, real life, restored life—beginning now and realized in eternity. I don’t know about you, but I for one can’t wait until our Lord’s fulfillment, when He comes to take us into His wedding feast.
What will we find once we enter His marriage feast and the doors to this fallen world are shut behind us? Consider our first reading. What a picture! Former things, such as our sin and our weaknesses, will not be remembered. We, God’s Jerusalem, will “be glad and rejoice forever in that which [He creates].” Why? Because He rejoices in us and is glad in us, His people. That’s what Jesus’ incarnation, cross and empty grave tell us. It’s what His washing and His Meal deliver to us. Also, no more weeping, no more cries of distress. “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). No more infants dying young, no more old men coming to the end of their days. In other words, life, full life, real life, restored life. And just in case we think it might get boring, as if there would be nothing to do, remember this: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” We’ll get to enjoy living like we’ve never enjoyed it before. God also says, “My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Yes, our working, our living, our growing will be such a joy—something that eludes us here and now, but something that will be very real.
But here’s something even better. God says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” No longer will we speak, act, and live in ways contrary to God’s good will. Instead, we will be, as they say, “in tune”—perfectly in tune—with God the Holy Trinity, and He with us. It’s how we were created to live. It’s what Jesus came to restore through His life, death, and resurrection. It’s what we can look forward to with great anticipation. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it.
Hebrews 4:9 says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” That Sabbath rest comes in our Bridegroom Jesus Christ, and we will get to experience it fully on the Last Day. For now, even as we limp along, we rejoice in cross-won life and we look forward to His coming fulfillment of that life. Come to His Table, where He gives a foretaste of that feast to come. And while I must now leave you for a time, please remember that our Lord still keeps us together in His Body. After a time of “greater glimpses of the coming rest and joy,” I look forward to joining you again to look forward to our fulfillment in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.