The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Listening to the lessons for today, you might find it difficult to believe that we’re only three weeks out from Christmas. There’s a lot of doom-and-gloom here, isn’t there? Not a whole lot of “Christmas cheer” to be found in phrases that speak of a day that’s like a burning oven that completely incinerates sinners and turns them into ash under the foot. Say what you will, but there’s not exactly a lot of upbeat and inspirational caroling material to be found in Jesus’ description of people fainting with fear and foreboding, and the earth shaking with distress. If you came to my house singing this tune, I’d ask you to leave. “Merry Christmas! All hell is breaking loose! The world is ending in a fiery, terrifying blaze! Fa-la-la-la-la….” Yeah…you need to go!
I guess the big question we need to ask here is “WHY?” Why have these readings been assigned for this second Sunday in Advent? Out of all the God-breathed material that is Scripture, these are the words our ecclesial forefathers settled on for meditation three weeks before Christmas?! Yup…and it makes perfect sense too. Let me explain.
Take a look at the world we live in. It’s a pretty scary and terrifying place, isn’t it? It’s always been this way. The world has been a dark and terrifying place ever since our first parents plunged it into sin and death on that fateful day in the Garden so long ago. In terms of sin and terror and evil and death, we haven’t improved one stitch since that day in the Garden. In fact, I dare say that it’s only gotten worse. Just think about all the changes that have taken place in just the past couple decades. Things that used to be deemed sinful; things that people used to try and hide or conceal are instead now protected, promoted, and celebrated. Sex outside of marriage? “Shacking up” and “try before you buy”? That was called “living in sin” when I was a boy. Now it’s called “normal.” Homosexuality? Nowadays you’re deemed evil if you don’t promote, endorse, and celebrate the very thing that God explicitly refers to as “shameless, debased, unrighteous, and evil.” Abortion? That’s always been called “murder” in God’s book, but nowadays we call it “women’s health” and “choice” and a viable form of birth control. Let us not forget that Islam is deemed a respectable religion of peace, and if you say anything to the contrary, you’re a demonic, hate-filled Christian bigot.
And that’s the “softball on tee” kind of stuff. Don’t even get me started on the rot that passes for “Christian faith” when it comes to something like not “agreeing to disagree” about false doctrine and heresy, but instead stepping up and calling it out and calling it what it really is. That kind of behavior makes some people upset. It hurts their feelings. We can’t do that! They might take their business elsewhere. They might post something unflattering on Facebook about us. We can’t have that! Yes…tell me again how our reality right now isn’t doomy, gloomy, and terrifying?
Now, here’s the truly unsettling part: What does God think about all this stubborn and proud sinfulness? What does God think about this ramped-up and emboldened arrogant stance our culture takes when it fights like the devil to defend the darkness it so prefers? What does God think about a people who basically give Him the finger and defiantly do whatever pleases them at that given moment? He tells us. There’s no mystery. He tells us rather plainly and bluntly. It’s absolutely terrifying. This is what our lessons speak to today. “Merry Christmas. All hell is breaking loose, and the world is coming to a fiery, wrathful end. God is exacting terrible and terrifying vengeance on this rebellious and sinful world. Fa-la-la-la-la….”
Well…it’s not quite like that. In fact, it’s not like that at all. You see, we get so caught up and rattled by the harsh words of God’s final and authoritative response to sin and evil that we wind up missing the Gospel. If you look in Malachi, the righteous ones; that is, those who have been justified through faith alone in God’s grace alone, are alive and well. They’ve been brought through the tribulation. They’ve been saved. They are walking victoriously in the dust and ash that remains after God has put all evil and terror to death. Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel to “lift up our eyes” when we see these terrifying, apocalyptic things happening, because the Son of Man—the victorious Jesus Christ in the flesh—is returning in all power and glory…just as we confess in our creeds.
Just think about what Jesus is telling us here. He speaks of “power.” This dunamis—this power of God—is the power of salvation to all who believe. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ has this power, and St. Paul exhorts that we should never be ashamed of this Gospel Word of God precisely because it—and it alone—is the power of salvation to all who believe. Jesus Christ will return again with this same power on full display. He will return in all glory. That’s an Old Testament word. The glory of the Lord is what Israel looked to and followed during their wilderness sojourning. The glory of the Lord—pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night—led the Israelites throughout their time wandering in the desert’s shadow of death. This glory of the Lord would come to a stop, letting the Israelites know exactly where they were to erect the tabernacle; the holy house where Almighty God Himself “tented with” and dwelt with His people. When that divine glory would pick up and leave, the people were to follow, trusting that God knew what He was doing, and He was working all things for their good and their salvation.
This is why I love the second part of Jesus’ Gospel discourse. He directs us to the fig tree. “You can tell by looking at the fig tree that when you see the buds and leaves forming on the branches summer is near. You can connect those dots. So it is with the coming of the Son of Man. It’s all part of the plan. It’s all right on schedule. When you see these things happening all around you (as we do), connect the dots, straighten up and lift up your eyes to heaven, for your salvation—your Yeshua (Hebrew)—is drawing near and coming to you.” Folks: I don’t know about you, but that’s Gospel comfort and peace to my ears!
This is why these texts are Advent texts! Remember: Advent isn’t just a warm-up act for Christmas. It’s not just a pep-rally to help us get into the “spirit of Christmas” and baby Jesus and such. No! It’s about making repentant preparation for the coming of our Lord and Savior. This Savior did come to us to save us from our sin. There’s a reason our God and Lord took on our flesh and had that flesh nailed to a cross—for us and our sin. There’s the repentant nature of Advent [the crucifix]. And remember, also, that this adventing wasn’t just past-tense, nor is it just a future-tense, Judgment Day thing either. It’s not like Jesus came once upon a time as a baby, and sometime in the unforeseen future He’ll come again in glory on Judgment Day, but until then we’re left to fend for ourselves. NO! He comes to us today! He advents with us today!
Lift up your eyes and behold the King of kings and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Behold, the powerful, almighty King, who advents and tabernacles with you this very day in this very place, coming to you to feed you, nourish you, protect you, guide you, and love you. Lift up your eyes of faith and behold the Prince of Peace and His peace that surpasses all human understanding!
And that’s where this Gospel message is so often missed. Christ lives, the victory’s won. I know it’s tough to believe, especially given the state of things in our culture today. Everywhere you look, it certainly seems like evil is winning and Christianity is impotent and powerless to stop the depraved and demonic onslaughts. Everywhere you look, it looks like we’re losing. It’s time to give up hope. Abandon ship! Run for the hills! Save yourself!
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Relax. Breathe in…breathe out… rejoice! Yes…rejoice, for your Lord has already won the victory. It’s a done-deal. It is finished! By virtue of your baptism into Him, you bear His almighty and all-powerful name. By faith, He has declared you righteous and justified and redeemed. We have His sure and certain promise: The gates of hell will not prevail…ever. No matter how bad or dark or hopeless things may seem, lift up your eyes, your hands, and your heart and rejoice, for you belong to Christ, and nothing and no one can ever take that from you. Learn this faithful lesson, not only from the fig tree, but from the Tree of Life that is Christ’s cross. Look to that tree. Behold the abundant bloody fruit of God’s wrath for sin and love for you; that divine wrath and love centered in the work and person of Jesus Christ. Lift up your eyes and look to Christ…and be at peace.
May this peace that does surpass all understanding; this past, present, and future Advent reality of your almighty Prince of Peace, guard and keep your hearts and minds ever lifted up and affixed on Him.
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