In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 21:34-36 “But take heed for yourselves lest your hearts be weighted down in excess and drunkenness and the anxieties for the things of this life and that Day close upon you suddenly like a trap.
For it will come upon all who sit on the face of the whole earth. But be alert in every moment, praying that you would be counted worthy to escape all these things that are about to happen, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Of all the seasons of the church year, sometimes I think I like Advent the best. I loved it as a kid, growing up with those advent calendars and the 25 little windows that counted down to Christmas.
I love the sounds of Advent, the hymns that look both backward and forward – back to Christ’s first appearing as the Babe of Bethlehem, and forward to His coming in glory on the Last Day. The Church sings, “Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” “Savior of the nations, come!” “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding.”
I love the sights of Advent. The violet of repentance. The advent wreath, an eternal circle of evergreens branches. The four candles, counting down the Sundays, reminding us that even though the days are getting shorter and darker, Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.
I love the images of Advent – the prophetic Word ready to be fulfilled; human history literally pregnant with the Promise of God; an angel whispers in the ear of a young virgin girl; John the Baptizer appears out of nowhere in the wilderness, preaching and baptizing, preparing God’s people.
I must confess that there are times when I’m just about ready to give up on Advent. The competition from shopping malls and Santa Claus and those sleigh bells jing-jing-jinglin’ seems too much for Advent to bear. The culture has pushed the Christmas season – excuse me, “holiday season” back to before Halloween. It seems so irrelevant, so out of touch to watch and wait while everyone is running around from one thing to the next. Why not just dispense with the old Advent wreath and sing Christmas songs from September on?
But then I think, no; this is perfect. This is exactly as it should be. It’s kind of a picture of the way Jesus said it will be in the end times. When the whole world least expects it, when everyone is busy planning their next social engagement and doing business and having a grand old party, WHAM – the end comes like a thief in the night.
And so it is good and right for us to do this counter-cultural thing, to watch and pray for the coming of Jesus while the rest of the world watches for bargains and prays for the lines to be short and traffic to be light. It is good for us to set aside some of this “holiday cheer” and light a violet candle in the darkness and chant those ancient prayers to Immanuel, begging Him to come and redeem His people. It is good for us, who are so accustomed to getting everything now, without waiting, to practice a little “delayed gratification,” and hold off just a little bit, because we know that there is a greater reason for this season than boosting the year-end sales figures. It is good for us to let our faith interfere with our lives and shape our expectations.
God in the flesh has come to save us! The eternal Son of God came down from heaven and took on human flesh and blood, and in humility obeyed His own Law perfectly and died to save the world. This same Jesus Christ, bodily risen from the dead and reigning in ascended glory will appear again, no longer covered in humility, but shining with a brightness that will make the sun look like a puny little night light. He comes to judge the living and the dead. He comes to raise the dead to life and to change the living in an instant. He comes to judge the world by His cross, to give all who trust in Him eternal life and to condemn all who refuse His salvation.
It is as we sang in the hymn of the day: “Every eye shall now behold Him, Robed in glorious majesty, Those who set at nought and sold Him, Pierced and nailed Him to the tree, Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, Shall their true Messiah see!”
We, as the church, have work to do – to prepare the world for Jesus’ coming. That’s why God has a church in the world, to prepare the way for the Lord, to keep a watchful eye out for the day of His coming; to keep soberly alert while the rest of the world dozes in a drunken stupor; to keep vigil in these darkening days of the world’s winter; to watch and pray.
Jesus said to His disciples, “Be careful. Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be heavy, weighed down by dissipation (the word means that sort of hungover heaviness that comes with excessive eating and drinking – perhaps you’re familiar with the sensation?), with drunkenness, with the cares and concerns of this life.” Jesus seems to have our “holiday season” in mind, doesn’t He? Dissipation, drunkenness, anxiety.
Sounds like December to me. Jesus knows His disciples, how easily they are distracted, how quickly they will go back to the old way of life. He knows us that way too. He knows that our spirit may be willing, but our old flesh is terribly weak. He knows that we begin with the best of intentions, but like a little leaguer’s swing, our follow through isn’t very good. Jesus knows all that.
Still, Jesus warns us. “Be careful, lest your hearts be heavy.” Heavy not just with cholesterol and heartburn; that’s the least of it…but heavy with the anxieties of life that press us down on every side, jobs in a slow economy, a roof over our heads, food for our tables, keeping the kids out of trouble. And then there are all the little pressing things we take on. We don’t know quite how they got started, but each one claims just a little bit more of our time, our strength, and our attention until it seems there isn’t any more left. Our calendars are full, our lives our full, our days are full. Our hearts become heavy as rocks.
It’s idolatry. Our idols are killing us, they’re consuming us bit by bit. Luther called the human heart a great “idol factory.” Unbuckled from the fear, love, and trust in God above all things, the heart will latch on to just about anything. It’s like the hooked part of velcro separated from the fuzzy part; it will stick to almost anything. That is our heart, beating with lusts and desires, beating with the ambition to be gods, beating with the need to control the universe, or at least those people and things around us. Our hearts live for pleasure, for thrills, for excitement, for whatever will make us happy.
And the irony is that it all weighs down our hearts with cares the human heart wasn’t meant to bear.
Jesus would have us to be light-hearted, not filled with anxiety and worry, not bloated and drunk, not clogged with cares and concerns. He would have us be free and happy-hearted people – alert, ready, awake, watchful.
That’s the posture of Advent, and that’s the posture for living in these last days.
But that is not the message you get in the majority of “end time” books available in all the Christian book stores today. Most of them represent a scheme that’s totally at odds with the Scriptures. The fancy name for it is pretribulational dispensationalism – which boils down to the teaching that true believers will be “raptured,” sucked up out of this world, and the rest of humanity is going to schlep around for three and half miserable years under the terror of the antichrist.
And if you pay close attention and are at least vaguely familiar with Scripture, you can note three huge errors in these books. The first is that salvation is a kind of deal that you strike with God: God did everything He could do to save you by sending Jesus to die for you, and now you close the deal by accepting Jesus. It doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t make deals.
The second error is that unbelievers get a second chance after the true believers get sucked off the earth.
Again, no such deal. And the third error is that the Last Day is preceded by signs that make it predictable. No, thieves in the night don’t call ahead.
That’s not how Jesus says it’s going to happen. And since He is the One who is going to appear, we must take Him at His Word. He says that the Day will come suddenly upon all who live on the face of the earth – all, as in everyone. No rapture, no special entrance for privileged believers; just one big instantaneous cosmic end, with bright shining Jesus appearing like lightning from horizon to horizon. And there will be less warning for that Day than Californians gets for an earthquake.
Maybe that’s the best end times analogy to think about. Earthquakes. Unlike tornados, hurricanes, floods, and fires, earthquakes come with no warning and we still have no way to predict them. All you can do is be ready for whenever the day of the big one will come.
There is no preparation for the Last Day of the world. There is only being ready; there is only watching for it, praying that you will escape all that will happen, and that in the end, you will stand before the Son of Man.
Hear the Word of Jesus Christ addressing you: your sins are forgiven, let your hearts rejoice! Eat and drink Christ’s body and blood! The gifts of His all-atoning death, He gives for your food and drink, not to weigh down your hearts, but to lift them up. You are baptized into the death of Jesus. You belong to Him, and He will strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father, when He comes with all His holy ones. What a day that will be!
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.