“Stumbling and Standing” (Jude 20-25)
For some reason, I remember her vividly...her emaciated body, her glazed eyes, her white cap absentmindedly cocked on her head, her blue running shorts soiled with her own waste. The whole world watched her on television, stumbling towards the end of the Olympic marathon. I don't remember what year it was. I don't remember what country she was from. I don't remember her name. But I do remember what a pathetic sight she was. She was out of it, that was for sure...out of the race...out of her mind. It was apparent, however, that somewhere deep inside of her, there was a part of her that was determined... programmed... insistent... that she was going to make it to the finish line. Call it the athletic spirit. Call it the competitive nature. In her case, it looked life-threatening. Some folks in the crowd helped her back to her feet when she fell to the ground. I remember thinking, “Somebody stop her. Just look at her. This is embarrassing, not to mention dangerous. She could very well die if she keeps going.”
In today's Epistle reading, St. Jude warns us about the possibility of stumbling towards the end...not the end of a foot race, but the end of all things, the end of this world, the Last Day, the day when Christ returns. It is possible to stumble and not make it to the finish-line of heaven. Jude warns us about that possibility and then points us to the One who is able to keep us from stumbling.
There are people around us who may cause us to stumble. There are people in our world who may cause us to trip over certain obstacles to faith in the Triune God. Jude mentions three types of people in particular: those who doubt, those on the brink of hell, and those who seem to be beyond help. He writes: And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by sinful flesh.
Have mercy on those who doubt and dispute with you. Don't be harsh with them. Be gentle with them and encourage them with God's gracious promises in His Word. Turn with them to God's Word to convince them of “the truth as it is in Jesus” without succumbing to the same doubts and disputes with which they confront you.
Others are to be snatched from the fire. These are those you know who have clearly and publicly fallen to sin and temptation. If they continue in their lifestyle without repenting of their sins and returning to Christ for forgiveness, then they are certainly on the brink of hell. Like a lifeguard who throws out a life preserver to a drowning person, throw out God's saving Word to these people who are in danger of the fires of hell. Remind them to cling for dear life to the promises of their Baptism, where God first rescued them from drowning in sin. Save them by reminding them about our “Divine Lifeguard” who saved us by dying for our sins and rising again on the third day.
The third group are those individuals who appear to be beyond hope...although we should really not view anyone as being completely beyond hope. But these are those whose lifestyle is so utterly wicked that all that is left to do is to pray for them. Don't despise them, as if you think you are better than they are. Have mercy on them by leaving them to the mercy of God. Jude warns us to avoid them when he writes, hating even the garment stained by sinful flesh. Jude may be referring here to clothing worn by lepers or those with some other communicable disease. Even touching their clothing would cause the disease to spread. So have mercy on them, but with fear. Keep them at a safe distance. Be careful not to get so closely entangled in their life and their issues so that you, too, are tempted to fall into the same sinful traps as them.
Each of these three types of people are “stumbling towards the end.” The Last Day draws near as each second on the clock ticks, but so many people keep on “stumbling” over sinful obstacles. And you and I are no different. We sometimes stumble over our own doubts. We sometimes walk close to the fire when we fail to run from temptation. We don't often act very merciful towards others. Instead, when we see someone caught in a sin, we think to ourselves, “I hope they get what they deserve.” It's not only others who have dirty garments. Our garments are also stained by our own sinful flesh.
But here is one thing you should already know and believe and rejoice in. We've been singing about it in our Gradual for the last month. St. John saw the saints in heaven and the angel with him said of them, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Now, in Christ you are already a saint. You are not in heaven yet. But what the angel said of those saints in heaven is true for you and me, too. Our garments have been washed in the blood of Christ. Therefore, although you and I may stumble towards the end, our Lord Jesus will make us to stand in the end.
There is a picture of this in the book of the prophet Zechariah. Chapter 3 has Zechariah's vision of the high priest by the name of the Joshua. Joshua the High Priest is standing before the angel of the Lord. Satan is also there accusing Joshua, probably pointing out all of his sins and shortcomings against God's holy Law, pointing out his unworthiness to serve God in his temple. But the Lord rebukes Satan and says of Joshua, “Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Next, Zechariah sees that Joshua is clothed with filthy garments. The angel of the Lord says to the angels present there, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And then, the significance of this is explained, as the Lord says to Joshua, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”
We don't need Satan to point out the ways we have fallen short of keeping God's holy Law. We are all very aware of it ourselves, although Satan will keep on accusing us, too. We know our own unworthiness to stand and serve in God's holy presence. But in the waters of Baptism, you and I are “brands plucked from the fire.” And the filthy garments of our sin have been replaced with the bright white robes of the righteousness of Christ.
Therefore, we will be able to stand when he returns. Jude writes, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.” As the Holy Bride of Christ, his Church will be presented in her spotless wedding dress to the Bridegroom when he returns, ready for the marriage feast of eternity. Christ her husband has “sanctified her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).
Jesus has promised that he will return one day as the judge of the whole world. He will send the angels out and gather his chosen ones from one end of the earth to the other. We don't know when that day will be. Jesus simply tells us Be on guard, keep awake. In other words, be watchful and ready for your Lord's coming.
But here is something you can know: you are one of his chosen ones because you are connected to your Savior through Word and Sacrament. You are baptized in his Name. You listen to and trust his Word of absolution. He gives you his body and blood to eat and drink for the strengthening of your faith and the forgiveness of sins. Because of what Jesus has done for you at the cross of Calvary, you will be able to stand on that day. In the meantime, you can walk towards that day...building yourselves up in your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.
You know, in many ways, life is like a marathon race. It sometimes seems like a long way to the finish line. It's tiring. It's grueling. There are obstacles in the road along the way. And you can get pretty dirty along the way.
St. Paul compared his life to a race. Knowing his life was nearing an end, he wrote this to Timothy: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (1 Tim. 4:7-8).
As we conclude another Church Year, stay awake for Christ's return. Love his appearing. Covered in the clean garments of Christ's righteousness, you will also receive the winner's laurels as you stand blameless before your God on the Last Day. To him be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.