Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent – December 2, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a kid I had one of those optical illusions where you stare at what looks like an ink blot for several minutes and then you look at a blank wall and you see an image. The image you saw after staring at the one I had was Jesus. (I think I got it at youth group.) I remember showing it to my grandmother. I didn’t tell her what she was supposed to see. She stared at the card like you’re supposed to do, and then she looked at the wall. I’ll never forget her reaction. In a tone of mock horror, she said, “Ahh! It’s Jesus! He’s coming to get me!”
Now my grandmother was the most pious and faithful woman I’ve ever known. The most important people in her life were Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, and Lawrence Welk – in that order. So even though I knew and loved my grandma’s wicked sense of humor, it was jarring for me to hear her react that way. She acted like it was the Grim Reaper coming for her, not her Lord and savior! “He’s coming to get me,” she said! Obviously it made an impact on me, as I remember it all these years later. It made me wonder: Is the coming of Jesus something to be afraid of?
Today we begin the season of Advent. The word “Advent” means “the coming,” or “to come.” This is a season of preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus – not just at Christmas, though that’s certainly part of it. This season is also about preparing for the second coming of Christ, and so we always kick off the season of Advent with scripture readings about Jesus’ promise that he would come again at the end of time.
This first Sunday in Advent often feels a bit jarring to us. Here we are now with the holiday season in full swing, when everything is supposed to be about being happy and merry and jolly, and then we come to church on the first Sunday in December and we hear Jesus talking about these mysterious signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. We hear him talk about distress and confusion among the nations. We hear him talk about “foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Is this Jesus or the Grinch? Do we have to hear this now? Can’t we just skip ahead to the cute baby part?
But, of course, talk of the second coming of Christ is always rather jarring to our ears, no matter the season. Part of this is due to the fact that as Lutheran Christians we don’t talk much about it. I have a seminary professor who likes to quip that most Lutherans would like to put off talking about the end of time until….the end of time. There are good reasons for that, to be sure, but the downside is that all kinds of other Christians have filled that vacuum with bad theology, bad novels, and bad movies which make our Lord’s coming sound like a threat, like something to be feared.
But it isn’t just the fault of these quirky brothers and sisters in Christ who have strung together various Bible passages in bizarre ways. Talk of the second coming of Christ can sound jarring to our ears even as it comes to us from historic, traditional, orthodox Christianity. How about the creeds we confess each Sunday? What about the line, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead?” Doesn’t that sound a little jarring? Doesn’t that make your heart skip a beat? Does it make you think to yourself, “Ahh, Jesus is coming to get me!”
The fact that these things sound so jarring to us is all the more reason to have a Sunday like this. The fact that we mostly ignore talking about our Lord’s second coming is precisely why we have a lectionary of assigned readings, to push us to deal with passages we might otherwise ignore. And as we look closely at our gospel reading for today, we find that our Lord’s coming again is not something to be feared, but something to anticipate with hope and even joy!
Today we hear Jesus describing the world as it will continue to be until he comes again. Has there ever been a time when there haven’t been natural calamities? Has there ever been a time in human history when there wasn’t distress and confusion among the nations, when there hasn’t been a sense of foreboding about what is coming upon the world? Jesus is straightforward about the way the world is and will continue to be. He tells it like it is. But he also tells us that in the midst of all that, in the mist of all those troubles, we are to stand up and raise our heads. We aren’t to cower in fear. We aren’t to curl up in the fetal position down in our bomb shelters. We are to assume the body language of confidence and hope. We are to assume a posture of anticipation. And why? “Because your redemption is drawing near,” Jesus says.
Jesus then tells a little parable about a fig tree. He says that when you see its leaves sprouting you know that summer is already near. In the same way, Jesus says, the signs we see in the world around us are not cause for hopelessness and despair, they are signs that the kingdom of God is near. They are reminders that something better is yet to come. Jesus compares his coming to the coming of summer! Who doesn’t like summer?
Jesus goes on to say that “This generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” An important thing to note here is that Jesus isn’t using the word “generation” to refer to a time, like we might refer to the Baby Boomer generation or Generation X or the Millennial generation. Every other time Jesus uses this word in the gospels he’s referring not to a group of people according to a timeframe or when they were born. He uses it to refer to that group of people who do not believe in him, those who have rejected him. Jesus is saying that this “generation,” these unbelievers, will be around until he comes again. And so we Christians will always have a ministry to carry out, won’t we? There will always be a need for the church to bear witness to an unbelieving world in the hopes that more would come to faith.
Jesus concludes this section by telling his disciples to be on guard. He warns them to not be weighed down with dissipation – which means overindulging in sensual pleasures. There’s a difference between enjoying the things of creation in their proper place and time and making sensual pleasures an end in themselves, making them a lifestyle and the purpose of our existence. Jesus warns them against drunkenness. Again, there’s a difference between imbibing responsibly and using alcohol to numb yourself or to take the edge off or using it as a counterfeit source of joy. Jesus warns them against being distracted by the worries of this life, so caught up in their day-to-day needs that they fail to focus on him.
There is a black hole of despair and hopelessness swirling around in this fallen world, always threatening to suck people in. It is still with us today. And so Jesus says, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
I suppose the coming of the Lord Jesus can be compared to the coming of a police officer to your front door. If that were to catch you by surprise, it might well make your heart skip a beat. “What has happened?” we might ask ourselves in a panic. “Am I in some kind of trouble?” But if you’re expecting the officer, and especially if you know that the officer has come to save you, there is no such fear. Instead you throw open the door with relief and joy. You might even wait and watch with anticipation until he gets there.
There are plenty of things that make us afraid in this world, in this life, but the second coming of our Lord Jesus shouldn’t be one of them. We don’t need to be afraid of Christ’s second coming because we know how he came into the world the first time. He came as a baby so that we wouldn’t be afraid of him but would instead look at him and love him. He came the first time as our savior, as the one who came to die for us, to atone for our sin. On the cross we have already been judged. And so when the final judgement comes, we have nothing to fear. We know the judge, and he took our sentence upon himself! As St. Paul wrote, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We don’t need to fear Christ’s second coming because he comes to us even now through his Word to give us his promises. He comes to us even now in his Supper to renew us in his forgiveness and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.
Just a few days before my grandmother died she told me she was ready to be with Jesus. She literally raised her head to tell me this. It was the body language of confidence. It was a posture of hope. She knew who was coming to get her, and so she wasn’t afraid at all. She was at peace. She knew her redemption was drawing near.
We can live our whole lives in this posture of hope. We can live our lives in joyful anticipation, because our Lord Jesus is coming again! We don’t need to be afraid! We can live in the peace that passes all understanding!
Be on guard against all those things that could lure you away from that hope, that peace. Live carefully. Be alert at all times. Pray. As heaven and earth pass away, hold tightly to the word that will never pass away.
Above all, assume the posture of hope. Stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church