There are many passages that talk about the end of the world. Many of these bother people, but perhaps none bothers people more than our Gospel text for today. Jesus tells us, "No one knows the day or the hour [of the end of the world], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." How can God the Son not know the time of His own return? Is He less knowledgeable than God the Father?
What we don't know scares us. "Fear of the unknown" is a concept you seldom have to explain to anyone because everyone knows they fear what is strange or unfamiliar. When we get ready for a new job, a new home, a different teacher, a different schedule, a new or different anything, we will explain our jitters by, "It's the fear of the unknown." All I have to do is say the two words "test results," and all of you can instantly relate to fear of the unknown. If you're young and in school, you think of a difficult test and waiting for your score. If you're older, you think of a medical test and waiting for your health. As we age we know more, but there are still unknowable things before us.
In fact, the unknowable is always before us; it's called the future. Strain as we might, stretch as we may, stare as we will, we cannot pierce beyond this moment. What will I do for a living? Whom will I marry? What will happen to my kids or grandkids? What will I do when I retire? What will I do when my spouse dies? Will I end up in a nursing home? Questions like these can drive a person to distraction. It does drive people to psychics, mediums, spiritualists, tarot tellers, and horoscopes. People go to these things because not knowing drives them crazy. They think if they know the future, even if it's bad, at least they can prepare for it.
But the future isn't ours to know. This offends us modern people who think we know so much. We know about atoms and genes. We know about the space/time continuum and how to divide a second into a million parts, so why can't we know about tomorrow? Furthermore, since we carry calendars to schedule our days, we think we do know what we are going to do tomorrow, next week and even on into next month. The truth of the matter is that we don't even know if we will have a tomorrow at all. St. James specifically warns against thinking we have tomorrow. "You who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not know what will happen tomorrow or even whether you will live." All we know, as our Introit for today tells us, is that our life is fleeting, and it's a mere handbreadth - that's a closed fist, or at most a span - that's an open hand in length.
How long till I reach the end of the hand; that's the question that burns within people's hearts, especially sick people. "How much time do I have?" People can be told what type disease they have, what their prognosis is, and what can be done about it, but all they really want to know is "Am I going to live?" The problem is that no one, not a doctor, not a pastor, not a professor, not a psychic can tell you how much time you have. They might be able to tell you a disease won't get you, but they can't tell you a car crash won't or the Lord Jesus won't return.
So here I am in this frail little body of mine not knowing when I will die, but sure that I most certainly will. Of all the things, I don't know this is the one that really bothers me. So I come to Church on this Last Sunday of The Church Year, the Church's New Year's Eve celebration, and what am I given to help me face a New Year filled with all the things I don't know? Jesus throwing His arms up and saying "Who knows?" "Who knows about the most important future date in all of the world? I don't." says Jesus. That's like being on patrol in the Army and finding out that not only don't you know where you are, the patrol leader doesn't either. Jesus could have talked all day and not said that.
But He did say it, and what Jesus says is for our benefit. From all eternity, God the Son most certainly knows everything God the Father and God the Holy Spirit do. There are no secrets in the deep, mysterious council of the Holy Trinity. As a Man, Jesus, however, didn't always fully use all of His divine knowledge or power. He did this so He could live in a humble way on earth taking our place under the Law and it's judgements. When Jesus tells us the Son doesn't know the day the world ends, He is emphasizing the incarnation, His taking on flesh and blood in the womb of Mary. This shows to what depths Jesus descended. He went so far as to live like we do. He too had the unknown in front of Him. He knows what it's like to live with uncertainty. He knows how edgy and nervous that makes us.
However, there is something even more comforting in Jesus' statement about not knowing what day the world ends. Jesus says in John 12, "I do not speak of My own account, but the Father who sent me commanded Me what to say and how to say it. I know that His command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told Me to say." When Jesus or Scripture speaks of God the Father giving things to Jesus whether it is the Holy Spirit, words, or information, they are speaking of what the Father gives to the Son in time not in eternity. Again let me say, from all eternity God the Son has everything and knows everything that God the Father and Holy Spirit do. However, what the Father gives to the Son in time are only those things that pertain to our eternal salvation.
What great news that is! If Jesus doesn't know it in time, it can't be important to our salvation. While we are commanded by Jesus to watch for His return, we aren't commanded to know when He will. Jesus in fact tells us that He comes at a day and an hour that we don't expect, so thanks be to God, that we don't need to know "when" to be saved. We are saved solely by the grace of God in Jesus. Our salvation was all wrapped up on Calvary's bloody cross almost 2,000 years ago. Our salvation was given to us in time in Baptism. Knowing exactly when our Lord will return for us isn't something that has to do with our being saved. The Father knows, but since "when" has nothing to do with our being saved, He didn't give this information to His Son in time. What we do know based on what Jesus says here is that when the last trumpet sounds we will be no more or less surprised than Jesus would have been.
Take comfort from what the Son doesn't know. Not only doesn't He know the Last Day, but He doesn't know your sins of yesterday. Scripture says that He threw those behind His back. He threw them into a deep ocean. He doesn't know where they landed. He doesn't even know you as a sinner in your Baptism, in His Absolution or in your Holy Communion. In these, He only knows you as a new creation, created after Himself in true righteousness and holiness.
Don't make the mistake of thinking because you can't forget something, or because you can't NOT know something, that God the Son can't either. He says, "I will remember their sins no more." Just like when the Son says that bread is Body and Wine is Blood, it is, so when He says, "I don't remember'" He really doesn't. When Jesus shouted from the cross, "It is finished." He was through thinking about your sins. You can be too.
What we don't know frequently scares us. What the Son doesn't know can be of great comfort to us. But what about the fact that we absolutely don't know when the Lord will return for us individually at death or for us all on the Last Day? Nobody can say when this might be. You might be here next year when we again celebrate the Church's New Year's or you might not. I might not be. We all might not be. What do we do with this great unknown? You can do one of two things when you know something is coming but you don't know when. You can either worry or watch.
The return of our Lord either for us at death or for us all that end of the world doesn't have to be the subject of our worrying. We don't have to be endlessly, and hopelessly I might add, trying to calculate the day of our death or the day of our Lord's return. We don't have to be like children playing musical chairs always afraid that the music will stop when we don't expect it leaving us without a seat. We don't have to live our lives always having that anxious feeling which comes from trying to anticipate when the music will stop. Don't you remember how that was? It was fun for that game. But who wants to live always on the edge like that, always one note away from not having a chair.
We don't have to face the unknown day and hour of our death or the Lord's return with the worry that children playing musical chairs feels. We can face these unknown things like children, but like children watching. I remember watching for my dad to come back from a school he was at in another state. My mom let me play out in the sandbox all day where I could see the road he would be coming down. At first I looked up as every car passed. Then I got absorbed in playing but even so I was watching still because every now and then I would jerk my head up at a car noise. I remember it got dark and still I watched.
As I sat in the sandbox watching for my dad, was I scared and frightened and worried because I hadn't been a perfect boy while he had been gone? I had not obeyed my mom like I should and I had fought with my brother and sisters. That is true, but still how did I watch for my dad? You know how. I watched with joy and expectation not with one ounce of worry or fear. My dad who loved me was coming home. It was a day of excitement from the moment I got up.
Don't you see that is how it can be for us too? Don't you see that is one reason why our Lord doesn't tell us when He is coming for us? It just might be today, the next hour, in the next minute. All the days leading up to the day my dad was coming home were not exciting, but when my mom said it was today, although I didn't know exactly when in the day, the whole day was exciting. That is how it can be for us dear children of the heavenly Father. It just might be today when your Lord who has redeemed and forgiven you will come. Today might be the day when He returns for you laden with more gifts than you can ever imagine. You need not hang your head dejected and sad because you know it can't be today.
After spending all day in the sandbox watching, do you know what happened? My dad did surprise me. I didn't see his car go by. All of a sudden my mom was calling that daddy was home. Of course, he threw me out of the house because I hadn't watched well enough. Of course not. I belonged in his house because he was my dear father and I was his dear child. Watching perfectly, or even watching at all, didn't make me a son of his; it didn't get me into his house. What got me into his house was him giving birth to me. I watched for the unknown hour of his return because he claimed me as a son of his house. I watched for what was unknown because I was known by him. I watched from the security of being in his house to begin with. So may all of the heavenly Father's children watch for Him. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Last Sunday of the Church Year (11-26-00) Mark 13: 32-37