✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
There is a great difference between Jesus’ first coming and His second coming. In His first coming Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, noticed almost by no one. In His second coming He will be clothed with light, and every eye will see Him. In His first coming Jesus rode into Jerusalem in lowliness on a donkey. In His second coming He will ride on the clouds with power and great glory. In His first coming Jesus bore the cross, despised and forsaken. In His second coming, the risen Lord will be accompanied by hosts of angels, and to Him every knee shall bow.
It is important for us during this Advent tide, then, to focus our attention on both of these advents of our Lord–His coming at Christmas, and His coming again on the Last Day. You don’t get one without the other. The baby in the manger and the Judge of the living and the dead are one and the same. First Jesus comes to win our salvation. Then He comes again to bring us our salvation in all its fullness. Not only do we look back in faith to what Christ has done, we also look forward in hope to what Christ will yet do. St. Paul reminded us last week, “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” The Savior is coming!
So what if I were to tell you that Jesus is going to return some time before the end of 2019? How would you respond to that? Well, first of all I hope that you’d immediately identify me as a false prophet, since the Scriptures make clear that no one knows the day or the hour of Jesus’ return. But still, it is quite possible that Jesus’ return will be this calendar year, isn’t it? The signs are fulfilled. The Last Day could be today for all we know.
So the question is: does that fact bring to you a sense of joy or a sense of dread? There’s really no middle ground on this, is there? Either Jesus is returning to this world as Judge to condemn and punish you, or He’s returning to this world as Savior to deliver you into everlasting life. His coming will either be a source of great happiness and relief or great terror and despair.
If the Last Day and the return of Jesus is not something you’re eager for, why is that? Is it that you fear facing God because of your sin, especially those sins that you struggle to let go of? Then repent and believe the Gospel that Jesus has already taken those sins from you. He answered for them all at His first coming. Hold on to Him, not your guilt. To those who believe, Jesus comes not as an enemy but as a Redeemer and a Friend.
Or is there another reason why you’re not so eager for the second coming? Is it that you’ve got so many attachments to this world, so many plans and dreams for your life, that the return of Christ would actually throw a monkey wrench into it all? It’s precisely because we so often get our priorities turned upside down that Jesus reminds us today: Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with partying and good times and all the cares of this life. For indeed that Day “will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” Beware of becoming so at home in this fallen world that you lose your desire to escape it and be free of its empty glories. “The heavens and the earth will pass away.”
And let me point out that this has direct implications for how we raise our kids and what we seek to teach our grandkids, doesn’t it. If you knew the return of Jesus were happening soon, would you treat your spiritual responsibilities toward them a little differently? Would all the games and the extracurricular stuff not be so central, and would the things of God be the main priority? And if so, shouldn’t that be the attitude you actually take then, since Jesus’ return really could be at any moment? Christians live day by day in the joyous hope of Jesus’ coming, desiring His return and desiring to order our lives in a way that reflects that.
There is a time when time will come to an end. That’s why it’s important to note how Jesus speaks in the Gospel about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. For these heavenly bodies are the markers of time. Scripture says that they were appointed for signs and seasons, for days and years. They found one of their greatest fulfillments, one of their greatest markings of time, in drawing the wise men from Babylon to Bethlehem to worship the Virgin’s Son, Jesus.
The heavenly bodies are counting down to the end of time, and eventually they themselves will pass away. Every sunset is a reminder of our impending death. Every sunrise, though, is a promise of the resurrection to come on the Last Day. The movement of the sun and moon and the stars are predictable. So also is the return of the King–not that we can know the exact time of His return. But we can predict with absolute certainty that, as sure as there are stars in the sky, Jesus is coming back. Every moment He is postponed the tension grows greater. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
Look and see if there is unusual solar or astronomical phenomena. Look and see if nations are distressed with perplexity and political upheaval, if the sea and the waves are still roaring and there is unusual weather and natural disasters, men’s hearts failing them from fear of what is happening. Know then that the Day is surely drawing near. Time will come to an end. It will not continue forever. The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory. Watch therefore, and pray so that the Day will not ensnare you.
We prayed in the Collect: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.” That is a dangerous prayer to pray. For we are not praying: “Lord, give us a warm, fuzzy feeling in our chests, make our lives comfortable and leisurely, make us popular with our friends.” No, to pray that God would stir up our hearts is to ask that He would shake things up in us, that He would awaken repentance in us and renew our faith and prod us into action. “Stir up our hearts” is a plea for God to end our complacency, overcome our laziness, and stop our self-absorbed melancholy. We ask Him to intervene for us against one of our wiliest foes, ourselves, and on the most dangerous battlefield of all, our hearts.
For while the Bridegroom delays, the dangers increase. We must continue to endure temptation. Salvation is closer now then when we first believed. But do we have the same zeal we had then to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior? It is easy to grow weary and to be seduced by the devil’s promise of rest. “Why fight it? Why work so hard? Why care so much about what God says when it doesn’t seem to help?” The devils advises you: “Take care of yourself. Don’t offend anyone, and lay up for yourself treasures where you can see and enjoy them.”
But that is most certainly the way of death. And so we pray, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, against the devil and our old nature! Make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.” Man does not live by mammon and worldly praise. The Baptized live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. All other things will fade away. But the Word of God will never pass away. It never lies, never changes, never fails.
On the great and dreadful day of the Lord’s return, Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the “spiritual but not religious,” and all those good people who thought they could come to God apart from the grace of Christ alone will no longer be able to deny His power and authority. Satan’s many masks and false names will finally be stripped away. Then the pagans and the agnostics and the spiritually self-sufficient will know the dark lord whom they’ve been worshiping all these years, and they shall be burned up in God’s wrath. But to you who honor the Name of the Lord, who trust in the mercy of the God born of Mary, He, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings. Look up. Lift up your heads. Your redemption draws near. Your suffering, your trials, your troubles are at their end.
The decisive battle for your soul was fought outside Jerusalem, where there was another great sign in the heavens. The sun was darkened in the middle of the day for three full hours as all the blackness of sin’s judgment descended upon Christ. He bore that for you to set you free. That’s why the Last day is not a day to fear. Judgment day already occurred for you on Good Friday. The last day for you is redemption day! For it is your Redeemer who is close at hand. The Father has given you a full pardon through the death of His innocent Son. The Spirit of Life and Resurrection now abides in you.
It is a dangerous business living in this fallen world. But the end is certain for those who belong to Jesus. Fear not. Do not be afraid. The Savior has not died in vain. The devil is a liar, already defeated. Jesus died and rose again for our salvation. He reconciled all mankind to His Father, and the kingdom of heaven is open to all believers. Blessed are all those who trust in Him, who rest in Him, who confess Him. You will not be disappointed.
So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you right now, the holy Sacrament of the Altar. To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important. But to you who believe, it is a marvelous sign. For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly to deliver you. It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to David Petersen for some material in the latter half of this sermon.)