On Wednesday night after the Advent service, little Eli Schiff came up to me as I was shaking hands and said with great enthusiasm, “It’s almost Christmas!” Now the word “almost” on the Wednesday of the first week of Advent may be a little overly optimistic. But I knew what he meant. It certainly is the time of year when everyone is gearing up for Christmas. Decorations were already up in downtown Marion before Thanksgiving. Now everyone is putting up their Christmas trees and outdoor Christmas lights. The Sunday school is working on the Christmas program.
I knew what Eli meant. And I also knew how Eli felt. He was expressing the excited anticipation of the arrival of Christmas. I can remember feeling that way too when I was his age. And I am willing to bet that Eli is no different than I was as a child. There was so much excitement about the arrival of Christmas. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t wait to celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God. It meant that couldn’t wait to see what presents I was going to get.
I can remember sitting in the pew at the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Warrington, FL where I considered the Advent wreath to be a countdown to opening presents. Each candle got you closer and closer to the excitement of Christmas Eve – for that is when our family opened gifts. By the time I arrived at the day of December 24 the excited anticipation was almost unbearable. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as I waited to go to church, so that we could then come home and open the presents.
In the Church, we call the time that leads up to Christmas “Advent.” The name Advent is derived from a Latin word which means “coming.” Advent is a season when we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Son of God as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and then born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem.
Yet that word “coming” which explains Advent has a meaning that goes beyond the preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. During Advent we are focused on the arrival of Christmas on December 24 and 25, and all that goes with it. But there is more to it than that. Eli can’t wait for Christmas to arrive. But what if he is wrong? You see, Advent is also that season when the Church remembers that Christmas may not come this year.
Last Sunday the Gospel lesson was about the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Today, the Gospel lesson also takes place during Holy Week. We learn that during that week some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings. They were right. The temple was an amazing sight. But then Jesus said, “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.” In reply they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
Jesus says that the temple will be destroyed. This was a shocking statement. Most likely, the prospect of the temple’s destruction evoked thoughts in the disciples about the Last Day. After all, Jesus had already spoken in Luke’s Gospel about the arrival of the kingdom of God and the Son of Man. He had told them, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.” Jesus had said, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Our Lord told the disciples that the period leading up to the destruction of the temple would be a time of wars, great earthquakes and famines. He warned that it would be time of persecution. Jesus had already said after entering Jerusalem that a day was coming when the enemies of Jerusalem would lay siege to it – when they would set up a barricade around the city before tearing it down to the ground.
Now Jesus said, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” He said that the believers would know when the temple was about to be destroyed. It would be no surprise. And when they saw that it was about to happen, Jesus told them exactly what they were to do. He said: “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.”
The destruction of the temple was something they would see coming, and Jesus told them what they should do. But Jesus had already said that his coming would be at an hour they did not expect. It would be an entirely different kind of event. And we hear about it in our text.
Our Lord said: “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 describes an unexpected arrival that is accompanied by cosmic signs of distress. At the center of all of this is the coming of Jesus Christ – his second coming. Jesus says, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
During Advent we are preparing to celebrate Jesus’ first coming, when he was born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem. This is the beginning of his saving mission. It begins in a weak and humble way – a helpless baby lying in manger. Its culminating moment is even weaker and more humble – a helpless man who has been tortured and now dies as he hangs nailed to cross, taunted by those below. Ye this is God’s will to save you. For Jesus hangs there weak and humble in your place. He bears your sins – your desire to put yourself first; your desire to avoid humble service. He receives the Father’s judgment against your sin. He dies your death and is buried in a tomb for you.
Yet the Son of God’s descent as a humble sacrifice for your sin was never meant to be a one way trip down into the grave. Already at his transfiguration Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his coming exodus. His mission arced down … and then back up. On the third day he rose from the dead and began your resurrection. In his ascension he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father. Weakness and humility now have nothing to do with Jesus.
Advent prepares us to celebrate the Son of God’s entrance into the world. Christmas has a tender quality that even the world can appreciate. Yet the Gospel lessons for the first two Sundays in Advent will not allow us to get lost in schmaltzy sentimentality. Last Sunday we heard about the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem to die. This Sunday we hear about the coming of Jesus in power and glory to raise the dead and judge.
Advent says that we must be ready for Jesus’ return – we must live in the knowledge that Christmas may not arrive this year. And we must set aside those things that hinder this recognition.
In our text, Jesus talks about being prepared for his return. He says, “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. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Partying and cares of this life – does that sound like the days leading up to Christmas? In many ways the “Christmas season” is simply an intensification of what happens during the rest of the year. It is an additional level of what Jesus described as thorns in the parable of the sower. He said, “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.”
Advent reminds us that instead, Jesus calls us to live as people who are looking for his return. So let us live as people whose ongoing prayer is “Come Lord Jesus!” Let us live as people whose lives in the present have been transformed by the One who will come again. Earlier in this sermon I mentioned Jesus’ words “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast.” In the same place Jesus said, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Immediately prior to this our Lord had said: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The life that is looking for Jesus’ second coming seeks to give gifts … not to receive them. It treasures God’s Word and his gifts of the Means of Grace … not things. For through these means it is Jesus who comes to us now as he gives us forgiveness and life – real life that will last. Life that will begin in all its fullness when the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and great glory to raise and transform our bodies.
So yes, it’s almost Christmas. But right now it is Advent. And Advent teaches us to pray that there will be no Christmas this year. Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.