Ready or Not…


How early kids learn to say ‘ready or not’ in that distinctive way where your voice trails off. “Ready or not…” There is a lilt in the voice, a pending excitement because the game is starting. It’s fun to play hide and seek and to be the one to announce the beginning of the game. But say, “Ready or not…” without the lilt, without the trailing off, and it’s an “uh ho” of dismay or concern. Ready or not, men used to be drafted. ‘Uh-ohs’ were uttered then. Something even bigger happens to us all.

Ready or not Death comes. In my 100 Bible Stories commentary I say the point of the parable of the 10 Virgins doesn’t turn on all sleeping. I stand by that, but sleep here is an euphemism for all dying. Augustine says that the sleep no one escapes is death (ACC IB, 217). Jesus and Paul both use sleep to describe death. When Jesus raises Jarius’ daughter He says, “She is not dead; she is only sleeping.” Or read John 11:11-14. Jesus says, "’Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’  Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep. So then He told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead..’” Paul writes in 1 Cor. 15:6 “Jesus appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”

Death is the one thing no one escapes. In the parable of the 2 houses Death is depicted this way: “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house.” The point of both parables, the 10 Virgins and the Wise and Foolish builders, is that the state of preparedness you die in is the state you meet the Lord in. As Shakespear said, “We owe God a death” (Henery IV, Part 2). Benjamin Franklin said that the only two sure things were death and taxes. God says in Heb. 9:27, “It is appointed for men to die once..’” And in Rom. 6:23 He says, “The wages of sin is death.” No one ever complained that death withheld their wages.

Ready or not Death is heading for us all. Soon or latter, tomorrow, today, next year, next decade, next century, Death will find us. Luther startled his Wittenberg congregation when in his first sermon back from Wartburg he said, "'We are all summoned to die, and no one can die for the other. Everyone must individually be armored and armed to fight against the devil and death. We can shout into each other's ears, console each other, and urge patience, fight, and battle. But each one of us must be prepared for the time of his own death'" (Luther on Ministerial Office, 47) Someone else has said, "In the choir of life, it's easy to fake the words - but someday each of us will have to sing solo before God'" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 207). Uh-oh.

Ready or not here Death comes to reveal unreadiness. Remember the concept of stress testing banks after the Great Recession? Military training is suppose to stress you similar to combat. Both stressing banks and soldiers is designed to do the same thing, reveal where readiness is lacking, so it might be addressed. Russel Tinsley was an outdoor writer in Texas. In the Cold War, his editors showed up at his house and said he had half an hour to get all the things he, his wife, and several children would need to survive for a week in the wilderness. He, an experienced outdoorsman, said that it was far harder than he thought and he didn’t prepare adequately. I’ve seen people stress tested by health scares, personal problems, money woes. They come back to church but usually only till that scare subsides. But of course when Death itself reveals unreadiness, it’s too late then.

Ready or not death is coming for us and whatever state it finds you in that’s the state you appear before God in judgment. When I quoted Heb. 9:27, I stopped halfway. “It is appointed for men to die once”. The verse ends with: “but after this the judgment.” As sure as you have an unbreakable, unchangeable, unmissable appointment with death, so do you have one with judgment. Hermann Sasse in a WWII era sermon on our text titled The Mystery of the Last Things said that while man today thinks he has succeeded in abolishing the judgment of God, he cannot dismiss death. God binds both together. If you admit the one, you must the other. C.S. Lewis addressing WWII London mothers who had lost sons in the war said that it was easier to face the death of your loved one when you realized it was always a matter of ‘when’ never a question of ‘if’. Our death and judgment are when’s not if’s.

Wait a minute: Aren’t you the one who says, “Behold the Lamb of God carrying away the sins of the world?” Aren’t you the one quoting, “Christ is not only the wrath-removing sacrifice for our sins but for the sins of the whole world”? Didn’t Jesus kept the Law on behalf of all? Didn’t He suffer hell itself and die for all. Isn’t the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on Easter after having keep all of God’s law and after having paid for our not keeping it, isn’t His resurrection the absolution of the world? Don’t you say that there’s no more unkept laws? No more sins to be paid for?

Yes! Salvation is free for all. Christ died for all. He wants all to repent and come to the knowledge of the true. He says, “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Is. 55). Here at Church is the water of Eternal Life in that Baptismal font. Take it. It’s yours. Here at this altar is that fountain filled with the Blood of Christ which sinners plunged beneath lose all their guilty stains. Here are the words of eternal life proclaimed Sunday after Sunday. So, as often as you spurn your Baptism, don’t confess your sins, or walk on by this altar, so often do you tell the God who is love, forgiveness, mercy, and salvation, “No thanks. I’m good.” 

Sasse’s WWII era sermon addressed this too. Up till the 18th and 19th centuries, all Christians believed a divine judgment faced all. Look up the Medieval hymn Dies Irae. It’s #607 in TLH. Listen to it on YouTube. Only with Christ in Word and Sacrament could one face the death and judgment in that hymn. That changed. Clause Harms said in 1817 that before the Reformation “’The forgiveness of sins at least required money in the 16th century. In the 19th it costs nothing. Now men serve themselves with it. They at that time [the 16th century] stood higher than us, they were nearer to God.’” Sasse comments: “He who forgives himself his sins is his own God.”

Modern man thinks that because he has philosophically been able to place himself rather than God on the Judgment Seat and God rather than himself on the defendant’s seat, he’s solved the problem. Death will show him otherwise. No one can be ready in a moment’s notice to face his death. What takes a life time to ready can’t be cobbled together in a day. To this you respond, “What about the thief on the cross?” To which I reply with the aphorism: A deathbed conversion is recorded once in Scripture to show that it can happen and only once so that no one may presume it will. In other words, plan on converting on your deathbed, and I’m telling you now you’re planning on going to hell. Uh-oh.

Ready or not here death comes to reveal unreadiness forever and to reward readiness. Jesus has prepared the Marriage Supper of the Bride. He, the Groom, bore all the expense. He bore the law’s weight on His human back. He did all that God and men required of Him. In a wilderness while starving, He refused to make bread. When offered a way around the hellish cross, He wouldn’t take it. When offered a way to not have to experience in His holy body and soul the separation of the two, He said, “Either I go through that as a damned sinner or they will have to.” So He did. You don’t have to.

Ready or not here death comes, so how do I know I’m ready? All die and all rise. Ready or not both things happen to all with the exceptions of Enoch and Elijah. No need to prepare to actually die or rise. What we’re getting ready for is the judgment that follows death immediately and then is announced publicly on the Last Day. You are ready to die if you know what and where your righteousness is. Your righteousness is not your works, your faith, your offerings. Your righteousness is the perfect life and innocent suffering and death of Jesus. And where is that found? Not in your faithful heart, not in your loving heart, not in your generous, merciful, friendly heart. Your righteousness is outside of you. Clothed in Baptismal water, Absolved in Jesus name, and bodied and bloodied to Jesus in Communion, you are ready to greet death whenever, wherever, however it comes. Luther said it this way: "Therefore let the afflicted conscience think nothing, know nothing and pit nothing against the wrath and judgement of God except the Word of Christ, which is a Word of grace, forgiveness of sins, salvation, and life everlasting" (LW, 26, 120).

Jesus says His sheep hear His voice. You who return here each week to hear that voice, are ready. He says His baptized are born again as New Men. They are ready. He says those who eat His body and drink His blood in faith in who He is and what He did on the cross are ready for death and judgment. You are ready others are not. When the demons like the mythological Valkyries are swooping down and carrying the foolish, literally ‘stupid’ virgins away, you will be ushered into a wedding banquet. The last line of Mat. 24 is that when the Lord returns He “will cut that unready servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then our text goes on: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like 10 virgins…” At the same time as that unready servant is being cut to pieces and damned to cry and gnash his teeth forever, we’re going into a wedding reception. We’re being let in to a time of joy and partying.

Read Revelation. The Bride of Christ is adorned, dressed, by the Groom. Paul says in Eph. 5 that Christ makes her holy by the washing of the water with the Word “to present her to Himself as a radiant Church, without stain or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Does such a bride wonder let alone worry if she will be prepared? No, She hears, “Ready or not…” like a child filled with anticipation, expectation, and joy. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Last Sunday in the Church Year (20231126); Matthew 25:1-13