The Word of our Lord this morning is a continuation of the Word we heard from Him last Sunday. It follows His final departure from the Temple in Jerusalem, with His Cross and Passion right on the horizon. It concludes His response to the disciples’ question concerning the destruction of the Temple: “When will these things be? And what will be the signs when they are being fulfilled?”
Understand that several significant events kaleidoscope together in these Words and warnings of the Lord Jesus. He addresses not only the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple in particular, but also the final Judgment of the world and, above all, His own approaching sacrifice upon the Cross. It is His Cross that really defines and governs those other events. And it is solely by His Cross and Passion that you are prepared, made watchful, alert, and ready, for your own death and judgment.
It is the Crucifixion of Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, which fulfills and supercedes and renders obsolete the Temple in Jerusalem. And it is the rejection of that same Lord Jesus Christ and His Cross which brings the judgment of God upon that once holy City, put to the sword and leveled to the ground a few decades later. For it is by the Cross of Christ that God has atoned for the sins of all people and reconciled the world to Himself; and it is thus by His Cross that all people are judged, either righteous by faith or condemned in their sinful unbelief.
By faith in Him, crucified and risen from the dead, you have nothing to fear in the Judgment, but only a glorious confidence and blessed hope, as sure and certain as Christ Himself. Thus does He admonish you to watch and to wait upon His coming, whenever that Day and that Hour shall be.
To watch, to be alert, and to pray. That is the Christian faith and life to which the Lord Jesus calls you this morning. Not only for a season, but all year long, and really throughout your life. For with this exhortation He summarizes and describes the keeping of the first Three Commandments.
To watch, to be alert, and to pray, is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Above your job and your income. Above your house and home and all your stuff. Above your own thoughts and feelings and opinions, and above your family and friends and what they would have you do. And thus to worship and rely upon the Lord alone as your true and only God means that you call upon His Name at all times and in all circumstances, be they good or bad, with your prayers and petitions, your praise and thanksgiving. And that means that you must give attention to His Word and the preaching of it, gladly hearing and learning all that He says to you. For it is only by His Word and Spirt that you fear, love, and trust in God, and that you call upon His Name in faith.
To live in this way is to live as a Christian disciple of Christ Jesus, watchful and alert each day and hour of your life, hearing and heeding His Word; clinging to His Word — and so clinging to Him — with all that you are and have; confessing His Name and praying to Him by faith in His Word.
“Take heed,” therefore. “Watch and pray!” Thus says the Lord. For you do not know when the Judgment will be, but He would have you number your days and know that your life is fleeting.
Remember that, when Jesus first spoke these Words, it was only a matter of days and hours before He would be handed over to His death. It was so essential that His disciples be alert, and watch, and pray, that they should not fall into temptation in the face of His Cross and Passion. It is no less essential for you, now, as you bear His Cross and follow after Him, lest you fall away and be lost.
Of course, if you consider those disciples in the days that followed, then you will know how badly they failed in every respect, and how they fell asleep on their watch at that most critical Hour.
The Master of the House had departed from His Temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples did not yet know when the Lord would raise up the Temple of His Body. He would go away to the far country of death and the grave, and then He would come again, suddenly, in the power of His Resurrection. They knew not when it would occur, and yet, they were surrounded on all sides by the signs of His coming: at evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and in the morning.
It was “at evening” when Jesus first celebrated and instituted His Holy Supper, thereby replacing the Temple and the sacrifices of the Old Testament with Himself. As He was handed over by His Father to His voluntary suffering and death upon the Cross, He handed over His Body and Blood to His disciples (and so through them to His Church of all times and places). He thus made explicit the journey that He was undertaking, as well as the divine significance of His approaching Cross. It should therefore have woken the disciples up to the utter seriousness of that Day and that Hour. Instead, those who were closest to the Lord Jesus failed Him in every way, and He was left alone.
It was “at midnight” when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane on that same night, and He asked His disciples, Peter, James, and John, in particular, to watch with Him and pray. And you know what happened, how they fell asleep, not once, not twice, but three times over. Their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak, as your flesh also is weak. Not only that, but it was in that very Hour when Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, betrayed His Friend and Master with a kiss.
It was “at cockcrow,” while Jesus was being falsely accused, derided, mocked, and beaten, that Simon Peter denied even knowing the Man, cursing and swearing to that effect in his fear. And of course, by that point, everyone else but St. John had already run away and fled into the night.
And it was finally “in the morning” when Jesus was then handed over to the governor, Pontius Pilate, by the chief priests, scribes, and pharisees, who should have been the watchmen of Israel.
Now, then, it’s easy enough to point fingers and find fault, especially from our vantage point in retrospect. But surely you know better than that. As the Lord’s own Apostles were unable to stay awake, alert, and watchful in that day and at that hour, do not suppose that you would have done any better then; and do not imagine that you do any better, even now, by any power of your own.
The truth is that only the Lord Jesus has remained steadfast in His faithful vigil. In the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and in the morning, He was always watching, always alert, always in prayer. His submitted Himself at all times to the Will of His God and Father. That is why even He, the incarnate Son, did not know the Day or the Hour. He rather lived His life in the flesh, and He went to His death on the Cross, in the same way that you are called to live and die, that is, by faith alone, not trusting in Himself but in the Word and Spirit of God. So, too, with His prayer in the Garden (while His disciples were resting and sleeping), the Lord Jesus entrusted Himself entirely to the purposes of God, willingly taking and drinking the Cup of wrath and Judgment.
And so it was that, when that Day and that Hour came, Jesus alone was watchful and alert, awake and ready. Not by an exercise of His divine prerogatives, by His might and power and knowledge as the very Son of God in the flesh, but rather as the true and perfect Man, by faith in His Father.
It is in Him, therefore, that both the necessary watchfulness of faith and the final Judgment of God have already been fulfilled and satisfied for you and all people. For He has given Himself to suffer the entire punishment of hell for the sins of the entire world, the sins of Adam and Eve and all their children down to the close of the age. But notwithstanding all of that, He alone has lived perfectly the life that you could not — the life of holy faith, of fear, love, and trust in God above all things, of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and of constant attention to the Word and promises of God.
The watchfulness to which you are called by the Word and Spirit of God — the patient forbearance of the Cross in your body and life, from the waters of the font to the dust and the dirt of your grave — it is all made possible for you by Christ Jesus. His watchfulness and His bearing of the Cross strengthen and sustain you in the Word and faith of God through His forgiveness of your sins.
It was “in the morning” that Jesus was handed over to Pilate on Good Friday; but then it was also “in the morning” that the women discovered His empty tomb on Easter Sunday. And it is in the power and promise of His Resurrection that you are woken up and raised from the death of your sin to the morning of His Life. It is likewise in the power and promise of His Resurrection that the Hour of His Cross is proclaimed as the judgment and defeat of sin, death, the devil, and hell, and so also as the Day of righteousness, life, and salvation for you and all who believe and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is by His Cross and Resurrection that you and His entire Church on earth are made watchful, alert, and awake for His coming, now in the Ministry of His Word and Sacrament, and in His glory at the last, when He shall raise the dead and give life to all who are His own.
So were the Apostles prepared by their Lord, Jesus Christ, to be His faithful servants and the door-keepers of His new House, which is the holy Christian Church. And those same holy Apostles, as well as the ministers of Christ to this day, prepare the entire Household of the Church by the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, by the speaking of His Word of Absolution, by the washing of the water with the Word in His Name, and by the feeding of His Christians with His Body and His Blood in remembrance of Him. The administration of those various means of grace is the work and responsibility entrusted to the servants of Christ who are called to be pastors of His Church.
But the watchfulness to which Apostles and pastors are exhorted is a watchfulness also demanded of all disciples of Christ Jesus, each of you in your own place, your own office and station in life.
For each and every one of you, that watchfulness begins and continues in the faithful use of the Word and Sacraments of Christ, as those gifts are given and received in His Name in the Life and Liturgy of His Church. For just as the Old Testament people of God were prepared for the coming of the Christ by the Temple and its sacrifices, so are you prepared for the coming of Christ Jesus by His coming to you now in those ways and means which have superceded and replaced the Temple in Jerusalem, namely, the Divine Service of preaching and the Holy Communion. That is where and how the Holy Trinity makes His Name and His Glory available to you, where you are given to eat and to drink of the Sacrifice that Christ Jesus offered for you and for all on the Cross.
Thus are you exhorted, now more than ever, to watch, to be alert, and to pray, that you might cling to the sure and certain hope that is yours in Christ Jesus, and hear and receive His many good gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation, and rejoice all your days in His grace, mercy, and peace.
By the same token, as you are faithfully served by the Lord Jesus Christ in this way and through these means, so does He also serve others and prepare them for His final Judgment through you, through your words and actions in His Name and by His Spirit. For just as you hear and receive the Word and Sacraments of Christ Jesus in the Liturgy of His Gospel, so do you become a kind of living Word and Sacrament of Christ for those who live outside of His Church. The Lord thus comes to them through you, that He might bring them into His House, and there prepare them by the preaching of His Gospel and the nourishment of His Holy Supper for His coming in glory.
Of course, your watchfulness and your service to others are not what they should be. Even at your best, you are doing nothing more than what is your duty. And the fact of the matter is that, even as a Christian, you continue to sin every day in your thoughts, words, and deeds, falling far short of the glory of God in what you do and say, and in all that you fail to do in love for God and others.
But where your watchfulness and service are always so weak and pathetic, the Lord’s watchfulness and His Divine Service are always trustworthy and certain. He continues to prepare you by His preaching of repentance unto faith in His forgiveness of all your sins. He has already satisfied the Judgment of God by His sacrifice upon the Cross, and in your Holy Baptism He has granted you eternal life with God by His Cross and Resurrection. And now, again this morning, He feeds you with Himself in that great Feast which goes on forever in His Paradise; so that already here and now is that Day and that Hour in which you are called to share in His divine Life and Salvation.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.