Third-Last Sunday of the Church Year

"Help Me, O Lord, I Pray"

St. Matthew 24.15-28; 1 Thess. 4.13-18

Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor

+ In the Name of Jesus +

By Thy good counsel lead me, O Son of God, my Stay; In each perplexing trial Help me, O Lord, I pray. Mine hour of sorrow shorten, support my fainting heart, From every cross deliver, the crown of life impart. (TLH 407, stanza 2)

Our Lord Jesus in and before today’s Gospel reading tells us in no uncertain terms that there will be abominations, horrible desecrations of those places and people God has made holy. Here’s what Jesus said earlier in His sermon:

“…They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another… And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Mt. 24:9–12).

These tribulations, the love of many growing cold, the betrayal, the hatred, the putting to death of Christians, and the enduring of hatred for Jesus’ name’s sake – it will have its ascendency in this corrupted world as time winds its way down.

Last Sunday, we saw such an abomination of desolation in the cold blooded murder of twenty-six Christians and the wounding of twenty others by a deranged gunman at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Love there not only grew cold, but was totally rejected, hatred reigned, lawlessness took over, and twenty-six souls who were hated in this life for Jesus’ name’s sake were delivered to God’s heavenly keeping.

Now we see Jesus’ words within today’s Gospel reading in a different light:

For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. (Mt. 24.21-22)

Those days will be cut short. Amen, and come Lord Jesus to deliver us from this vale of tears.

But until then, we see the rebuke and cold calculus of the unbelieving world. The love of many has grown so cold. Unbelievably, politics entered the story of this tragedy – some of our fellow Americans said in social media reactions that the prayers of the saints in Texas did them no good, what kind of God would let people praying to Him die in such a way, and worst of all, those expressing that they would pray for the victims’ families ought instead to put their energies into passing laws banning the automatic rifle the killer used – after all, the prayers to God didn’t seem to do all that good, but perhaps government almighty would have better protected them with more restrictive gun laws.

Now, I’ll leave the political debate alone at that point, for it’s not the proclamation of God’s Word to take sides from this pulpit on such political issues where there is no clear word of God to speak to it.

But we do need to contemplate what God’s Word says to comfort us and strengthen us as we face these abominations and the many hearts turned so cold towards our Lord and His Church.

First of all, our Lord is honest with us and tells us ahead of time, as He does in and before today’s Gospel reading, that the world will be cold and lawless and a hateful place towards believers in Him. We ought not be shocked or surprised that Christians are martyred in these gray and latter days, as sad and as awful as that turns out to be. We ought not be surprised that there is such willful ignorance of the Christian faith and its basic practice. Pray that these days do not take us unaware or unprepared, and especially not unrepentant for our own cold hearts towards God and neighbor, and pray that these difficult days are cut short for the sake of God’s elect.

Further, the prayers of these righteous men, women, and children in Texas did avail for much. It’s just that the answer to their prayers is not visible to us in this lifetime, nor is it readily visible in the face of the carnage this tragedy left behind. In a nationally published internet blog column, our former vicar, Pastor Hans Fiene, issued a biblical corrective to the idea that the Christians in Sutherland Springs prayed last Sunday to no avail. They were praying what all Christians pray: “Deliver us from evil.” Fiene writes,

“When we pray these words, we are certainly praying that God would deliver us from evil temporally—that is, in this earthly life. Through these words, we are asking God to send his holy angels to guard us from those who would seek to destroy us with knives and bombs and bullets. It may seem, on the surface, that God was refusing to give such protection to his Texan children. But we are also praying that God would deliver us from evil eternally. Through these same words, we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.”

“We are taught in the petition [‘But deliver us from evil.’] to lift up our heads, to think upon, and to desire the blessed life to come,” writes the great Lutheran pastor and theologian Martin Chemnitz, one of the authors of our Lutheran Confessions. “This life is eternal where there will be full deliverance from all evil. Because we are too occupied and immersed in the matters and affairs of this world and of this life, we also request that God would inspire, excite, kindle, generate, and preserve in us this thought and desire. The death of the godly is their deliverance from all evil and a beginning of everlasting happiness.” (Martin Chemnitz)

The people who mocked the victims of the Texas church shooting (and the notion of prayer) are exceedingly ignorant of Christianity. They don’t understand that the living One is Christ, and to die in Him is gain, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Christian prayer is not a magic spell. It is communion with God. It isn’t where we tell God what to do, or command the forces of nature to bend to our will. It is a humble submission to God and His will - even in the midst of the rubble of evil and chaos and death, even in the midst of things we cannot understand.

Our fathers in the faith prayed and sang hymns even as the Roman lions stalked them in the coliseum before jeering crowds, and as the beasts ate their little children before their eyes. Prayer is our refuge even amidst evil and death. For we worship One greater than evil.

In the words of our Small Catechism, “God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear Father.”

And so, we realize, in this life, as abominations of desolation happen before our eyes, sometimes good parents say, “No”, even when the children cannot conceive of how this can be. And yet good parents do say “No” and sometimes must endure the pain and even anger of their children who do not understand why. God is that dear, good, and gracious Father to whom His children plea.

We pray for the grace to forgive our enemies, and for them to likewise partake of God's grace and join us in eternity. We pray for forgiveness of our own trespasses, where we have sinned against our neighbors - and to be able to forgive those who trespass against us. We pray, ultimately, to be delivered from all evil, the sum of all petitions, to be rescued from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, to be given a blessed end, and to be graciously taken from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.

God’s ways are not our ways. We do not see the big picture, which is eternal in scope. We live in the fallen world that we have broken. We are sinners in need of forgiveness. And death awaits all of us. And yet, God chose to rescue us from eternal death by His willingness to lay down His life as a ransom for ours. That is the theology of the cross. It remains a scandal and folly that angers the world and results in our mockery, even as it was when St. Paul wrote as much to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:23).

Like children, we only see a small part of reality, and are not privileged to always and perfectly understand God's will. And yet we put our trust in Him, not in princes nor their laws or their platitudes, nor in science, nor in snarky skeptics, nor in any other entity to rescue us from our enemies. By the power of the Holy Spirit, who strengthens us in the comforting and forgiving Words of our Savior from pulpit and altar, we stand firm in crying out to God for help in every time of need, we refuse to give up our faith, and we trust that our gracious God, who raised the Lord Jesus from the most horrific abomination of desolation ever carried out in the holy place, the crucifixion He suffered on our behalf, indeed also hears our prayers and will deliver us from every evil of body and soul, whether in this world or to the next world to come.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, [even if through an abomination of desolation] that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep... For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first… Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13–18)

+ In the Name of the Father, and of + the Son, and of the Holy Spirit +