Sermon audio here.
We tend to think of Advent as being a time to prepare for Christmas. Christmas, then, becomes a celebration of Christ’s birth. The problem with this is it reduces Christmas to a historical event and puts our focus on the past.
But Advent isn’t about pretending we don’t know about the Lord’s birth or trying, somehow, to forget it happened each year so we can relive it as if it were happening for the first time. Christmas isn’t a celebration of our Lord’s 2,000th or so birthday.
For one, putting that many candles on a cake would surely be a fire hazard. But even worse, it misses the point of the Incarnation. Christmas is about the fact that your Savior took on human flesh, suffered and died for your sins, and overcame death on the Third Day.
Advent and Christmas are much more oriented to the present and the future than they are to the past. The emphasis in today’s liturgy is definitely on what is happening now and what is to come. Our Lord teaches us about the importance of preparing—today— for His Second Advent on the Last Day.
The way we prepare for the Last Day is summarized in the preaching of both John the Baptist and our Lord: repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repentance is the means by which we prepare for our Lord’s Second Advent and the coming of His Kingdom.
In this, we see that Advent has a very penitential, Lenten flavor. They’re both about repentance. This is why Advent and Lent have historically shared the same, violet liturgical color. It’s not by accident that the first Holy Gospel for Advent, which we heard last week, is a Lenten text: our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday of Holy Week.
Today’s Holy Gospel is also from Holy Week. Here, our Lord teaches about the signs of His Second Advent. He illustrates this with the parable of the fig tree before concluding with this warning:
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
And while the mood lightens up next Sunday and the color changes to rose, the joy is still, in typical Lenten fashion, restrained. Next week we find John in prison and he’s sending word to Christ by his disciples asking if Jesus really is the Christ. Things don’t seem to be going according to plan and John is beginning to have his doubts.
Last Sunday we heard about our Lord’s coming in humility, once on a donkey and now in Word and Sacrament to strengthen our faith. Today, we hear about our Lord’s coming in a cloud with power and great glory to deliver us from evil and encourage us in our hope. Advent isn’t about preparing for something that happened in the past; it’s very much oriented to our present preparations for the Last Day.
And that Day will be terrifying for the wicked—burning like an oven, the prophet said. People fainting with fear and foreboding, our Lord says. Things that normally stay fixed in place, like the sun and moon and stars, will be shaken. As terrifying as that sounds, there is a great deal of comfort here, for Christ comes to deliver us from our enemies.
“In just a little while, the wicked will be no more,” the psalm says. “Though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.”[i] Jesus comes to deliver you from sin and every evil, which clings so closely. He comes to deliver you from your ills and your sorrows, from your anxieties and your pain.
Jesus does not delight in your sorrow or your suffering. This is why we pray, in the litany, that Christ would deliver us from all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from sudden and evil death; from pestilence and famine; from war and bloodshed; from sedition and from rebellion; from lighting and tempest; from all calamity by fire and water; and from an everlasting death. He doesn’t want these things for you.
This is why we pray, according to Christ’s promise, that His holy angel would be with us, that evil foe may have no power over us.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and rose again that He might come again on the Last Day to deliver you from evil once and for all. The days of our sin and trial, of our time in the world, will end in victory and restoration.[ii] This is our Lord’s present-tense hope and encouragement for you.
Christ will deliver you from evil once and for all on the Last Day, but it’s not as if He ignores you until then. In His earthly ministry, He had compassion on the crowds, healed the sick, and even made they didn’t run out of wine at the wedding.
Jesus delights in the pleasure and joy of His people. He’s very realistic about our trouble in the world, even as He had trouble, but that doesn’t mean He leaves you to fend for yourself. You can if you like, but when we don’t rely on Christ is when we get into trouble. He walks with us through the valley of the death shadow so that we don’t have to go it alone.
Scripture characterizes this life as a time of exile, but Christ would give you the comfort, the joy, and the peace of His presence and His gracious Word until we reach the Promised Land.
The Holy Spirit wrote to comfort Christians in today’s epistle by pointing back to the Old Testament, to people who, like us, suffered in this world, but who also trusted in the Lord and were not put to shame. St. Paul writes,
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scripture we might have hope.”
God has been faithful to His promise to bless all the families of the earth in the Seed of Abraham, the Son of Mary, our Lord Jesus Christ, who by His death on the cross crushed the head of the ancient serpent and opened up the Kingdom of heaven to all who believe.
And while the days grow rougher and bring us great distress, our Lord would encourage us by these signs, even by our suffering, knowing that our redemption is drawing near, so that we do not lose hope as we make our pilgrimage from this world to the next.
Just as the time of a mother’s labor doesn’t last forever but gives way to overwhelming joy at the birth of her child, so also we know that the suffering of the present time wont last forever and isn’t even worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed.[iii]
Our Lord has always nurtured His people along the way. Before the Exodus from Egypt, He celebrated His Passover meal with the Israelites. Once they were out of Egypt and in the wilderness, He sustained them with heavenly manna. He also provided food for Elijah under the broom tree, who made the 40 day and 40 night journey to Horeb in the strength of that meal.[iv]
So also God gives food to all Christian pilgrims on their journey to the heavenly Promised Land, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Supper is the Bread of Life, that which sustains us on our way from this world to the next. Here, we lift our hearts to heaven as our voices blend with those of the choir immortal in singing the heavenly Sanctus to our God, who will come soon to take you home.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Psalm 37:10
[ii] Lindemann, The Sermon and the Propers, 43.
[iii] St. John 16:21; Romans 8:18
[iv] 1 Kings 19:1–8