On Oct. 20, 1944, General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippine islands. MacArthur arrived as the commander of an invasion army that was supported by an awesome military force that included eight fleet carriers, eight light carriers, eighteen escort carriers, twelve battleships, twenty four cruisers, and one hundred and forty one destroyers and destroyer escorts. That list doesn’t even begin to include the numerous submarines, PT boats, auxiliary ships, and transport ships that carried almost seventeen divisions of soldiers as the invasion force. In addition to naval aviation, he had the support from the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was a massive and powerful force that defeated the Japanese navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf – one of the largest naval battles in world history. MacArthur’s invasion army retook the Philippines and killed more than three hundred thousand Japanese defenders.
MacArthur’s arrival in October 1944 presented quite a different scene than the last time he had been in the Philippines. He had been the commander of U.S. and Philippines forces when the Japanese invaded on this day very day, Dec. 8, in 1941. The Japanese rapidly drove the Americans back to the Bataan peninsula and to the island fortress of Corrigedor in Manila Bay.
Fearing that MacArthur would be captured in the fall of the Philippines, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to relocate to Australia. The general slipped out of Corrigedor on a tiny PT boat and made it to the island of Mindanao, and from there a B-17 flew him to Australia. When he arrived, he spoke the famous words, “I came through and I shall return.”
The rhetoric sounded great. But the reality was that MacArthur escaped on a tiny boat as he left behind a defeated army – an army that would surrender in May 1942 and face the horrors of the Bataan death march. When MacArthur did return in 1944, his arrival looked very, very different than the last time he had been in the Philippines.
During Advent we are preparing to celebrate the first time that Jesus Christ was present in our world. Yet on this second Sunday in Advent our Gospel lesson turns our attention toward the future – towards his second coming. While his first coming was marked by humility and lowliness, Jesus tells us very clearly that his second coming will be one of glory and might. As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s first coming, his words challenge us to consider how we are living in the present. They ask us to consider whether our life is ready for his return.
Just before the start of our text some of those present with Jesus had been speaking about the temple in Jerusalem. They had noted how impressive it was. But Jesus responded, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” They then asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
Our Lord went on to describe that in the days ahead false teachers would arise. He said that his followers would be persecuted because of his name. And then he told them, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.”
Jesus said that Jerusalem would be conquered and that the temple would be destroyed. The disciples would know that this was about to happen when the enemy army showed up to surround the city. When that happened, they were to do one thing: leave. Just as it had in the sixth century B.C., God’s wrath was going to be poured out on the city – this time because they had rejected the Messiah.
Our Lord had been speaking about Jerusalem. But now in our text things shift as he says, “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus now speaks of cosmic signs that cause fear in all of humanity. And he announces that the divine Son of Man will appear and come with power and great glory. Everyone one will see it. When this happens, Jesus’ believers are not to cower in fear. Instead, they are to raise their heads and welcome the redemption – the salvation – that is arriving.
There is a dramatic contrast between the Son of God’s first and second coming. When Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, nobody noticed. It wasn’t like when the wife of Prince William, Kate the Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to their first child. The world media was abuzz with the news, and pictures of the first appearance with the child were seen everywhere.
Nobody noticed when Jesus Christ was born. Nobody showed up to see the child – nobody that is except for some smelly shepherds who had been living out in the open with their sheep. He was born in a stable and placed in a feeding trough. Humility and lowliness marked his arrival.
Those same characteristics continued on throughout his life. He didn’t live in a regal palace. Instead he spent his time preaching to and healing the sick and the poor – he spent his time with the most ordinary of people. And this is the way his life ended – in humility and lowliness. He died naked on a cross, crucified in the midst of the lowly – between two criminals.
And this is still true today for his Church – she too operates in humility and lowliness. She has no might or power. All she has is the word of the Scriptures to proclaim and teach – a word that people around us blow off all the time as just another human book. All she has water in a font – water that even many Christians say is nothing that God actually uses. All she has is bread and wine on an altar – bread and wine that even many Christians say is nothing more than bread and wine.
It is very easy therefore to overlook Jesus – even in our own lives. It’s easy to say that on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night I have something else I need to get done. It’s easy to sidestep the opportunity to talk about Jesus and his gifts with others. It’s easy to direct our time, attention and resources towards the things of this life that seem far more interesting and important.
During Advent we prepare to celebrate the first coming of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Yet the focus of Advent is more than just Christmas. The focus of Advent is also the Last Day – the day of Christ’s return in glory. Advent tells us that it is not possible to think about the first coming without also thinking about the second coming.
This is something that we need to hear. As Jesus says in our text, “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.” Our Lord warns that the things of this life can draw our attention away from him.
The language in our text hearkens back to the parable of the sower. There Jesus spoke about seed that landed among thorns, and how the thorns grew up and choked it. After explaining that the seed in the parable is the Word of God, our Lord went on to say, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”
The things of this life can choke off faith. They can strangle it so that ceases to exist. And that is why Jesus and the New Testament so strongly emphasize his return on glory on the Last Day. The Scriptures tell us to keep on our eyes set on what is really important. They exhort us to stay awake and be ready – to live lives of faith that are focused on Jesus Christ.
We do this because Jesus Christ didn’t simply die on the cross. Instead, on the third day he rose from the dead. He is alive with a resurrected body that will one day be yours too. And he didn’t just rise from the dead. Forty days later he ascended into heaven as he was exalted by God the Father. He won forgiveness for you. And now as the risen and ascended Lord he gives this to you through his Means of Grace.
Our Lord calls us to live as people who rejoice in his first coming and eagerly look for his second coming. We seek to live as the people his first coming has made us to be. And we seek to live this way because our Lord will return and we want to be ready – we want him to find us bearing fruit and living as his people.
This is a time of year when everyone is thinking about gifts. No doubt you are trying to finish up your Christmas shopping so that you will be able to give gifts to your family and friends.
Our Lord has forgiven you and made you the children of God. And now he wants you to give gifts. He will return at a time you do not expect and he wants to find you giving gifts. But these gifts are usually not wrapped with pretty paper. Instead they are the gifts that flow from Jesus’ love for us.
The gift Jesus Christ wants you to give is to forgive the person who has wronged you. The gift Jesus Christ wants you to give is to encourage and support the person who is suffering and downtrodden. The gift Jesus Christ wants you to give is to be patient and understanding with that person who can be difficult.
These are not things you can do on your own. Instead they are things he enables you to do by his Spirit. As he feeds and strengthens you by his Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit gives you the means that you need in order to share Christ’s love with others. And when we live in this way, we are people who are awake and are saying, “Come Lord Jesus.”