This year the Hallmark Channel is airing thirty six new Christmas movies between Oct. 27 and New Year’s Eve. They even have an app you can download on your phone to help you keep track and watch them all. And if you missed any from the last couple of years, don’t worry – they’ll be showing re-runs of those too as part of their Christmas movie marathon.
The Hallmark Christmas movies are very popular. Critics make fun of their predictability, but that misses the point that the predictability of the formula is part of what makes them so comforting and enjoyable. There will be a man and a woman who are very easy to look at. One of them will be unlucky in love, or clearly with the wrong person. Remarkable circumstances will bring the couple together in a beautiful and festive Christmas setting. There will be some problem that needs to be solved and this interaction will stir love within them. Often there will be a moment of mistaken perception, as one of them thinks the other is in fact in love with another person. But in the end love wins as they end up together at the conclusion of the movie and share in their first kiss. At least, I am told that is how they work. Not that one has ever been viewed in the Surburg house….
But what if this year, the Hallmark Countdown to Christmas never makes it to Christmas? What if something completely unpredictable happens and Christmas never arrives this year? That is the prospect that the Second Sunday in Advent raises for us. Yes, during Advent we are preparing to celebrate Jesus’ coming as he was born in Bethlehem. But to celebrate Jesus coming – his adventus – in the first century A.D. is also to consider the fact that when he ascended the angels said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” One cannot think about his first coming without also calling to mind his promised second coming. We do not know when that will occur. To be honest, we need to recognize that Christmas may not arrive this year.
Last week’s Gospel lesson described Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, as Holy Week began. Today’s Gospel lesson also takes place during Holy Week. During that week some were speaking about the temple, as they observed how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings. They were right. The temple was an amazing sight. Although we call it the “second temple” in that it replaced the temple destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C., it was really a completely rebuilt version of the replacement originally built in the fifth century B.C. Herod the Great turned this rebuilt version into one of the wonders of the ancient world.
However, Jesus replied, “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.” So the disciples 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. It is very likely that talk 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.”
The Lord Jesus 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. There 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.”
The Jesus that we see in the decorations that surround us during the days that lead up to Christmas is cute. After all, who doesn’t love a little baby? And of course the crèche scenes in our homes give a romanticized version of the event – a serene Mary and Joseph along with animals and shepherds gathered around the baby Jesus in a quaint stable. There is no mother exhausted from child birth; no stench from the animals.
Yet it is still a humble scene, and the humility of the manger points to the humility of the cross. There Jesus died as he bore the sins of the world – as he bore your sins. The One who had no sin of us his own became the ultimate sinner under God’s judgment because he took our sins upon himself.
However 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.
Our text this morning reminds us that when the world sees Jesus Christ again, there will be nothing humble about him. Instead all will see the exalted Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. The first time he came, Jesus could be rejected. Now, as he comes through his Means of Grace, he can be rejected. But when he returns on the Last Day that will no longer be possible. No one will get to ignore Jesus because all will have to appear him for judgment.
Again and again in the Scriptures, the return of Jesus Christ is something that the inspired biblical writers say should prompt us to avoid sin and to seek to live according to God’s will. After all, what we do want our Lord to find us doing when he returns? Jesus says in our text this morning, “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.”
The irony is that in many ways the “Christmas season” – these days leading up to Christmas as the world does them – is a great example of how the cares of life draw our attention away from Christ. In the last few weeks, which have you spent more time thinking about: your Christmas shopping and plans or Jesus Christ and the Scriptures that tell us about what he means for us?
All of this 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.”
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.”
If the world’s “Christmas season” is an example of what draws us away from Christ, what does it means to be ready for Jesus return – to be alert and keeping watch? First, it is to be focused on the way that Jesus Christ comes to us now. It is to place his Means of Grace at the center of our life. It is to daily remember our baptism in faith and to be in God’s Word. And of course it is to make the Divine Service the foundation of our Sunday.
And rather than giving gifts wrapped in paper, it is to give ourselves in service to others. It is to care for, help and support those individuals that God has put in our lives. It is to speak well of our neighbor and help his or her reputation whenever we have the chance. It is in love to warn our neighbors about the sin that is weighing them down, even as we receive the same words of care from them.
The world’s idea of the “Christmas season” is certainly more fun. The works we create for ourselves to do usually are. But the life focused on Christ’s Means of Grace and responding in loving service to our neighbor is the one that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem to establish and make possible. It is the one that we want the Lord to find us living when he returns as the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.