Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The New Year’s Eve Watch Night Service

The young boy sat nervously in the back row of the basement tabernacle. (Churches were often called "tabernacles" in that day.) It was New Year’s Eve and the faithful few were gathering for an annual event to celebrate, not so much the ending of one year and the beginning of another as to anticipate the ending of an era and the beginning of another. "The Lord may come before this service is over," the preacher shouted. "He may come before 1946 has ended."

Wow! At only ten years old, the boy had a lot of living still to do. He planned to replace Stan Musial as the star of the St. Louis Cardinals. There were a couple of pretty girls that he was interested in. Perhaps one of them would consent to marry a man who would be on the road half the time during the baseball season. It was not exactly good news that "the Lord may come before this service is over."

But more than that, he knew that the coming of the Lord ushered in that fearful event, the "Great White Throne Judgment." Arrayed on one side of the Judge would be the sheep, those having done all the good works required to hear the reassuring words, "Well done faithful servant. Enter in to the joy of your Lord." On the other side would be the goats, those who refused to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. The boy knew that he would stand with the goats and hear the dreadful words, "Depart from me ye wicked into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels." He could not recall a time when he was not a "believer"; from his earliest years he had memorized Scripture, attended church, read his Bible (irregularly), prayed (irregularly), and sometimes talked to his friends about "religion". And he never doubted that Jesus was the Son of God sent to be our Savior. He had recently, in the previous few months, made a special commitment to serve Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

But . . . but he had entertained every evil thought that ten year olds are prone to entertain. He had said some words that ten year olds should not have been saying. He had often been disobedient both at home and at school. He had sometimes, in a fit of anger, wished his brothers or his father dead because of the things they had done to him. And, worst of all, he had entertained some very romantic (ten year old’s) thoughts about those two girls he admired. He had no more chance of standing with the sheep than he had of going to see a St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball game.

So the "Watch Night Service" held only terror for the young man. His only hope was that mid-night would pass and he would find himself breathing the fresh air of a year he never expected to see, 1947.

The sermon invariably began at 11 p.m., giving the preacher ample time to enumerate the reasons why the congregated saints might not walk out through the church doors that night. He was also charged with responsibility for allowing a few minutes just before mid-night so the gathered could all be on their knees praying for God to bless the new year that, odds were, would not come into being. And just as routinely, the preacher lost track of time and preached until he noticed the faithful nervously checking their watches. He would attempt to put on the brakes but preachers in those day used the brakes so seldom that they often failed when an attempt was made to apply them. So the saints invariably skidded into the new year, falling on their knees at five or ten past mid-night, thanking God for the newly arrived year. None thanked God with more sincerity than the young man on the back row. He now had 365 new days in which to be the kind of boy that would, next December 31st, stand with the sheep.

Sixty-seven years have been added to the young man’s total. He has been invited to a watch night party with some fellow believers this year. Those who make it to mid-night will "pray the new year in" if they manage to break away from their scrabble and domino games in time. There is little talk, and apparently little expectation that "the Lord might come before this party breaks up at mid-night." The "young man", like Luther before him, has learned some things about grace; learned that we gain our position to the right or left of the Judge not because of our works but by grace, through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

So the ending of one year, and the start of another no longer holds terror for the old man. But he wonders how much we have lost because we cease to daily anticipate that second advent of the Lord. Without that constant reminder that our Lord may come today, to judge the "quick and the dead," we may find it easy to neglect the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of the sick and those in prison. The Judge has told us that, as we do those things for the least of those around us we are doing them for Him.

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