O Day of Mercy, the Final Judgement – Sermon on Zephaniah 1

“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Those are words we say, or rather we confess, as Christians. They come from the Nicene Creed—the most widely accepted confession of Christian belief around the world. But what does it mean when we say those words? On one hand, it means that we believe that resurrection is central to our faith—our resurrection. We confess earlier in the second article of the creed that “on the third day he”—that is, Jesus—“rose again,” but in the third article of the creed, we make a confession about our own resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection means something for us, in other words.

But this confession in the resurrection means that we believe resurrection is something physical, not merely something spiritual. We believe in a bodily resurrection. Our bodies—our flesh and the spirit within us—will be resurrected from the dead. We also confess that this is something that happens from death—not some half-state of consciousness or coma. God raises us up again to life when we are morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably, really most sincerely dead. Not only merely dead, but certifiably and thoroughly dead. Just as God once breathed life into the dust of Adam’s lifeless mud-body, so too does he breathe the Spirit of Life back into our dead bodies and bring us to newness of life in the New Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord. But this resurrection of the dead, this resurrection is tied to the life of the world to come.

Resurrection means a new start, a new beginning, a new birth. And when we look for that new birth, that’s looking for life in the world to come. Not a world we’re transported to, but a world to come to us. And yet that world doesn’t come easy. Resurrection is not easy. Resurrection after death. New life comes after we have died. And so we ponder that today as we go into the sermon. What does it mean to die? Not only spiritually, but actually? What does it mean to say good-bye to the way things were and look with renewed hope toward the future? Can we truly live in the hope of the resurrection so long as we fiercely hold on to our memories of the past and the pains of the present?

Ponder that as we go into the sermon today.

Would you pray with me? May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Year 2000 problem, also known as the Y2K problem, the Millennium bug—or simply, Y2K. Who remembers that? Back now over twenty years, Y2K was a formatting and storage glitch, predicted to affect lots of computer systems worldwide. People feared computers would glitch out because of the way in which some early programs were made to handle years containing only two digits¬—for example, ‘88 instead of 1988. Computer gurus and especially financial types worried that computers would end up confusing the year 2000 with the year 1900, because under the older formatting and storage protocols, both years would be written as “00” with only two digits. There was loads of uncertainty about what would happen one second after December 31, 1999 in a world increasingly so heavily dependent on computers.

Y2K, as you remember well, inflamed people’s fears and anxieties. The fear was even exploited by some fringe Christian leaders, particularly in North America and Australia. Some of these prophets of doom insisted that Y2K was the proof of Christian prophecy. It was instrument bring the nation, particularly the United States, to its knees. They preached that Y2K would bring about worldwide revival that would lead to the rapture of the church—a fundamentalist doctrine, which by the way, has solid Scriptural basis.

Folks who took this kind of preaching seriously were encouraged to engage in food hoarding, take lessons in self-sufficiency, and the more extreme types planned for a total collapse of modern society. In fact, my stepfather’s boss, the owner of the stone quarry where my stepfather worked at the time, had an underground bunker outfitted with all sorts of survival needs to withstand the coming of new millennium. My stepfather had a chance to eat the company Christmas luncheon in the bunker and was invited by his boss, along with all the other employees of the quarry, to bring their families into the bunker for the transition from 1999 to 2000. My stepfather declined and we didn’t go.

As it was, the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000. The ball dropped, ushering in not only a new year, not only a new decade, not only a new century—but a new millennium. And what’s more, no banks failed. No planes crashed. No wars or civil war started. What did happen, though, that later came to light, was that many so-called ministries and leaders in these doomsday prophecy movements made huge personal and commercial profits by selling Y2K preparation kits, generators, survival guides, prophetic literature and related products. Y2K turned out to be a big scare about nothing. Things kept on rolling along, even though people had been panicked by press coverage and media speculation, as well as corporate and government reports leading up to the fateful date.

Y2K isn’t alone. There have been doomsday predictions, well, forever. Harold Camping—after several unsuccessful predictions in 1994 and 1995—predicted that on May 21, 2011, the rapture and devastating earthquakes would occur, with God taking approximately 3% of the world’s population into heaven. The end of the world was supposed to occur five months later on October 21. Needless to say, that never happened. Ronald Weinland—also after several unsuccessful predictions in 2011, 2012, and then 2013—predicted that Christ would return on June 9, 2019. Before June 9, 2019 rolled around, though, Weinland started expressing doubts about his prediction. Again, needless to say, June 9, 2019 came and went, and the end of the world didn’t happen.

It’s not just whackadoodles, either, who engage in trying to predict the Last Day. In 1757, Emanuel Swedenborg, a former Lutheran, and founder of the new tradition Swedenborgianism, insisted that the Last Judgement would occur that year—if not physically, at least spiritually. Even some of the great saints of the church—Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, and Irenaeus, for example—had tried to figure out when the end of the world would happen. All three of those men predicted Jesus would return in the year 500, with one of their predictions even based on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.

This preoccupation with the End of the World, with the Last Judgement, with the Last Day, with the Day of the Lord, with the Day of Wrath—this preoccupation is something that goes as far back as the promise of Christ’s return. Despite Christ himself telling us, according to St. Matthew, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Already when Jesus was roaming about, folks were preoccupied with the end of the world.

In fact, it goes back even further, as we see in the reading today from the Prophet Zephaniah, who tells us “that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.” What’s more, the Prophet Zephaniah tells us that this day is at hand! It’s not some distant future, but it’s at hand—now! Jesus picks up this message and makes it his own in Matthew’s gospel. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” he tells us. Country will fight country and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Famines and earthquakes will occur in various places. This is routine history. It’s no sign of the end. This is nothing compared to what is coming, Jesus tells us—“All this is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” All this is but the beginning of the birthpangs…Hold on to that thought for a moment, will you?

All this talk about the end of the world—wrath, fire, darkness, war, earthquakes, famines, affliction, devastation, blood-red moons—that’s enough to make anyone uneasy, at the least. In fact, terrified might be a better word. But for us Christians—the coming Day of the Lord isn’t cause for terror. It’s cause for joy. In today’s first reading, St. Paul tells the Thessalonians in the first century, and he tells us today, we “are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” In other words, we don’t face these things calamities happening around us even now with the darkness of ignorance, but rather with the light of understanding—understanding that God is with us and nothing can separate us from God.

It might feel like we’re facing the end of the world right now. I know some folks have said it to me. Some of the dystopian novels and movies out there play on our fears of global disease, or predict a world where we all wear masks because the air is too contaminated to breathe with poison or radiation or whatnot. Collective suffering and fear brings home the worries about the end of the world. But whatever the case, nothing can separate us from God’s love. We might find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. We might find ourselves in the midst of uncertain times politically. We might find ourselves in the midst of financial woes, relationship trouble, or even a dark night of the soul. But God does not and will not abandon us. God is with us.

“All this is but the beginning of the birthpangs,” Jesus tells us. The distress and anguish, the day of darkness and gloom…But we know through suffering and death, God works the miracle of rebirth. These things are for us not a destiny of annihilation, but the harbinger of God’s consummated promise in the reign of Christ. “For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul tells the Thessalonians some two millennia ago. He tells us that same message today with the same clarion and befitting urgency.

God’s promise is this—We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. The promise of Christ’s return is simple. We who have died with Christ are reborn in him, and the day of his return for us is not a day of wrath, but a day of mercy, a day of grace, a day of fulfilled promise, a day of inexpressible, inestimable love. When Christ comes again, on that day, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised immortal, and we will be changed. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed, transfigured from mortal, temporal beings to fully embodied, enlivened members of Christ forever. We will be reborn, from death to life, from lives of suffering and sorrow to lives of gladness and joy.

The day of the Lord is at hand, and thanks be to God for that. Welcome it with cheerful expectancy and anticipatory joy—for Christ comes to make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus—and birth us anew for you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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