“Stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, let me tell you about a house. It is inhabited and maintained by numerous servants, who all once faithfully attended to the needs of their Master. He was a kind, benevolent man, and it was a joy to serve Him, though it was by no means easy. Life was good, for their Master’s presence meant comfort and safety, and it seemed that it would stay that way forever. But then the Master began to speak about a departure. He would be leaving, and soon. And He couldn’t tell them when He would return. Instead He told them, “Be on your guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Then, to their shock, for most of them didn’t believe that he actually would leave, He departed, just as He said. He was gone.
For some time, the servants all kept watch, eagerly awaiting their Master’s return. But as each day came without His voice in the hall or His presence in the garden, some of the servants became lazy. The long delay lulled them to sleep. They quickly began to think that if He hadn’t come yesterday, He won’t come today, and probably not tomorrow either. Finally, many of them simply quit watching at all. If you asked them, they would tell you that they certainly believed that He was coming back, sometime in the far off and vague future, but that belief has little effect on how they live their lives in the present. The Master gave each of them work to do, but now they go through the motions; on the surface they seem to be good and faithful servants of their Master, but their heart isn’t in it. They focus on their own pleasures rather than the work of the Master. If He isn’t coming back anytime soon, they don’t need to put much effort into their given tasks. Instead they sleep, they party, they play without even one eye on the door.
Other servants are obsessed with trying to figure out exactly when the Master would return. They pour over His words, seeking to determine the formula that would give them the year, the month, or the day. Every once in a while, a servant declares that he has figured it out—he knows when the Master is coming back! But time after time, they are wrong. On the surface, they seem much more faithful than the lazy servants, and every time they set a date, many of the lazy ones join them. But in reality, setting dates mean that they can be just as negligent as the ones who have been lulled to sleep. They spend their time, not at the tasks given to them by their Master, but in working out their complicated calculations. They don’t watch—they don’t need to, at least until their predicted day arrives. Then, they work furiously, seeking to accomplish their appointed tasks just in time to hear the knock on the door. But each and every time they are disappointed; the Master doesn’t come back.
Another group of servants, some openly, but many more secretly, are hoping that their Master never returns. They look at the date setters with disgust—who really wants the Master to come back? They are enjoying life without Him. The Master declared that His yoke was easy and His burden light, but now that He’s gone, it seems just the opposite. At the very least, life in the house without the Master is comfortable, it is easy; after a while, they can’t conceive of it being any other way. They ask, “Why should our Master come back and take away our future?” Life is good, and they simply don’t want a change. Let Him come back later, but not now. Others hope He won’t return because they fear His wrath. They don’t know what will happen when He knocks on that door, but they are afraid that all He will have is punishment for all of His servants. It is the unknown, the unexpected that scares them, the finality of His return, for at the point the door opens, they know there is no second chance.
In direct opposition and contrast to all the servants who aren’t watching, there is a group who is eagerly waiting for their Master’s return. These servants yearn for His return, they can’t wait. They examine His Words, but not to set dates. Instead, they pay attention to all that He told them because His Words are full of grace and mercy. His Words strengthen them and enable them to watch and wait. These servants do not fear His return, for they know that He has no wrath for them. He has made them His servants, calling them by name, and He will not act in wrath against those who belong to Him. They yearn for His knock on the door, for their existence in the house is anything but comforting for them. All they see around them is debauchery, suffering, and death, and they yearn for the freedom that only the return of their Master can bring. They know that they don’t belong in the house; it isn’t their home, even though the Master built it. When He returns, He has a new and greater home for them.
So these faithful servants watch. They are alert, ever ready for His return. They do not neglect their vocations, their tasks that have been given to them by their Master. They serve their fellow servants as He has appointed them to do. The father provides for his family, the mother teaches her children, the worker goes about his duties faithfully. They do the tasks set before them, living in the present while keeping an eye on the door, eagerly anticipating the Master’s return at any moment. As often as they can, these servants gather at the Master’s table, to eat the food that He has set before them. Without this feast, this constant nourishment, they wouldn’t have been able to wait this long. The other servants eat wherever they want; but these faithful servants go to the table of their Master. There they study His Words, there they receive His gifts. There they are strengthened to wait, they are encouraged to watch, they are made ready for His return.
For the moment is coming soon. The knock will be heard at the door, and heaven and earth will be shaken. “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” The created order will be shaken, indeed, it will fall to pieces, leaving only what cannot be shaken, the Master Himself. He built the house, and upon His return, the time of the house will be over. It was built well, but now its walls and roof are collapsing, corrupted with sin, and its foundation is crumbling, infected by the stain of death. He must tear it down and rebuild, He must make it new, and that is what He will return to do. He must destroy evil to set His people free, and so His appearance on the clouds is the sign that sin’s power is over, death’s reign is done. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” It is a sign of terror to His foes, but the sign of deliverance for His faithful servants.
The Master will return to gather in those servants, to rescue them from their exile, to deliver them from their affliction. “And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” They will be led out from the captivity of their foes like Israel was of old, as God Himself brought out His people with a mighty outstretched hand from Egypt and from Babylon. His return is the completion of His journey, it is the reason why He left in the first place. His journey was to the cross, His journey was to the grave, and from there the Master journeyed to the right hand of the throne of God. Judgment Day was the day of His departure, the day of the cross. For on that Day, the Master was judged for the sins of His servants. The sun ceased shining and the earth shook; the house was shaken when its builder died. He was judged as the guilty one so that His servants would be declared ‘not guilty.’ When He returns, the Master will bring to full completion the verdict that has already been rendered; He will declare that verdict throughout the world. On that Day those who cling to Him in faith will be declared innocent, and they will be gathered into their kingdom, the new house that the Master will build, not because they were so righteous, or because their watch was kept perfectly, but because of His grace, because of His forgiveness, clung to in faith.
That Day is coming, it is coming soon. “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” You and I live in the household of faith; we are waiting, as our fellow servants have waited for two thousand years. And we may wait two thousand more, or He may return tomorrow. To the servants, it doesn’t really matter, for their task remains the same. They keep watch day after day, eagerly awaiting their Master’s return. For His return is not a day of wrath for His baptized people, for you and me; it is a day of glory, it is a day of grace, it is the day when He will deliver all that He won when He departed on His journey. He left so that He could return; He left so that His return would a day of inexpressible joy. We serve, we wait, we watch in a house that is crumbling, and we yearn for our deliverance. It is coming, it is coming soon. Our Master declared, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” His words promised His return, and He will return. To that the servants say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” In the Name of the Master of the house, Jesus Christ our crucified, risen, and returning Lord, Amen.