By Paul Koch –
The question, “What have you done?” is a bit unsettling, at least for most of us. If it was said by my mother when I was being picked up from the principal’s office during grade school, it signaled the moment of overwhelming shame and guilt. It was the time that I had to confess what I did wrong, the time that I knew there was nowhere else to hide, nowhere to run to, no one else to blame. If it is said by an employer, it is usually referring to a lack of evidence of you being worth your pay. It is a time to give account of your doings, your effort, the quality of your work. And even if you’ve done a really good job, the question holds the opportunity for criticism as you give an account of your doings. But this question reaches its highest level of discomfort when it is found on the lips of your Lord. It is at its most profound when what hangs in the balance is not your school grade or your employment opportunities but eternal life itself.
The thing is all people long for something more, something better than this life. And the vast majority of religions throughout the world suggest that they know the means or the way by which you can achieve such a destination. And lingering in the back of every discussion is the question, “What have you done?” What makes you worthy of something better than what you already have? And you cannot ignore it. For the very idea that there is a place where there is no more suffering, no more discrimination, no more broken relationships or bouts of depression is worth working towards. It is what all humanity longs for.
In the Revelation to St. John, we are given an incredible picture of what that something better looks like. It is an image of the new heavens and the new earth. A place where God again dwells with man. In the center we see the throne of God and of the Lamb, and from that throne flows a river. Not just any river, but the river of the water of life, bright as crystal. And growing from that water is the tree of life. The tree once banned from Adam and Eve after their fall into sin is now restored. Its fruit heals and secures life eternal. In such a place there is no more night, no more fear, no more uncertainty and confusion. It is an image of restoration and purity, a vision of your deepest spiritual longings. This is the place where death and pain and sorrow come to an end. This is the place where God himself wipes away tears and promises that promises that you will never weep again. It is paradise, and it is beautiful. And then we hear the words of Jesus as he says,
Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:12).
“To repay everyone for what he has done.” Does that hit you as a word of comfort or a word of terror? Based on what you have done, what do you deserve? When I go and visit our brothers and sisters who cannot make it to church, I typically use a form of confession and absolution that follows a question and answer format. The words are no different really that what we all confess here together each Sunday, but it definitely is more intimate when posed as a question. I ask, “Do you confess to almighty God that you are a poor, miserable sinner? Do you confess to our merciful Father that you have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed? Do you confess that you justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment?” And after every question they respond, “Yes.” Every single time they say yes. Yes, you are a poor, miserable sinner. Yes, you have sinned in thoughts and words and deeds. Yes, you deserve eternal punishment. What have you done?
What you end up confessing is that there is a serious problem. And this problem is not just a matter of knowing or not knowing what to do. It’s not a matter of just trying harder or having a better plan of action to accomplish the task. The problem is that even the very best of you, even the children of God who seem to have it all together, the ones that have checked every faithful box and seem to have their life together. Even they when asked, “What have you done?” will find that they are lacking. They will easily see their own sin, their own shame, their own shortcomings. The problem is that you are bound up in your sin. You choose to sin. You like to sin. And if, when our Lord comes, he repays you according to what you have done, I have some bad news for you. All the splendor, all that wonder of the new heavens and the new earth, you don’t deserve that.
You belong on the outside. You belong with the “dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15). Why should you be allowed in when all around there are those you have hurt and failed to help? You have lived time and again as if you matter more than your God. You have used even his blessings as means to serve your pride and make distinctions in the body of Christ. You know that according to the demands of God’s Law you deserve his temporal and eternal punishment.
And yet you are not without hope. There one way into that eternal paradise, one means by which you can be sure that you will not be left on the outside looking in. In our text, right after saying that he is coming to repay everyone, Jesus then says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they might have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:14). The way in is to wash the sin away. The way in is to be cleansed, not by your effort or good work or grand intentions, but to be fully cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. In fact, earlier when St John is given to see the great multitude of saints gathered around the throne of God, he is told that “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white it the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). His blood can free you from your bondage; his blood is the means by which you will enter eternal life.
And so after asking our shut-ins about their own sin, the next questions follow. “Do you believe that our Lord Jesus Christ died for you and shed His blood for you on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins? Do you pray God, for the sake of the holy, innocent bitter suffering and death of his beloved Son, to be gracious and merciful to you? Finally, do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” And just as they said yes to the first three questions, so here they shockingly reply yes to each question. Yes, Jesus Christ died for you. Yes, God is merciful to you. Yes, his forgiveness is spoken to you this very day. And so, in the work and words of Christ alone what was closed off from you is now open wide. Paradise is not a distant dream, but a very real promise made to each and every one of you this day. In Christ you are free. In Christ you are forgiven. In Christ you will feast for all eternity.
And all those other religions, all those other folks will look at your confidence, look at your assurance, look at your hope in Christ and say that it isn’t fair. You haven’t done enough, worked enough, improved enough, increased enough in knowledge and understanding to enter paradise. So, they will begin to add to your checklist, to focus you on the best steps to find assurance, but they won’t be exclusively Jesus Christ, so they won’t ever be completely sure. But your Lord will have none of it. He says,
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city” (Rev. 22:18-19).
In other words, Jesus says that this is it. Your hope lies in him alone. You gain eternal life by his work, his righteousness, his forgiveness. Anyone who wants to add to that or take away from that is taking a big risk because they prefer the only way to eternal life. Christ is enough. Christ is everything. What have you done? Nothing. But Christ has done it all. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!