It’s understandable if you feel like you are having a “Groundhog Day” experience this morning. In the movie “Groundhog Day,” the arrogant weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, has to go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in order to be part of the coverage of the annual Groundhog Day events. He is rude and makes it clear that he has no desire to be there, and that he thinks the whole celebration is dumb. He has also definitively announced that the blizzard moving east is going to miss that part of western Pennsylvania.
However, Connors is wrong as the blizzard hits and the news crew is unable to return to Pittsburgh. They are forced to spend the night in Punxsutawney. The next morning, Connors wakes up to find that he is living the exact same day as the previous day - Groundhog Day. In fact, he wakes up every morning to live the same Groundhog Day all over again.
The last time I stood in this pulpit to preach, the sermon was about the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day. Today, I again stand here to preach a sermon about the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day. It is as if we are living the same Sunday all over again.
Now of course, it’s not exactly like the movie Groundhog Day, because I wasn’t here last Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent. I was on vacation for the Thanksgiving holiday, and the Gospel lesson that Sunday was not about the return of Christ on the Last Day, but instead, about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Nonetheless, it is striking that during the course of three Sundays we have two that focus on the exact same thing – the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day.
The last time I was here, it was the Last Sunday of the Church Year. The end of the Church Year always turns our focus to the end – to the return of our Lord on the Last Day. On the other hand, today is the Second Sunday in Advent. During Advent we are preparing to celebrate Christmas. We are getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Now for the world around us, nothing could be more jarring than the notion that today we should be talking about the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day. It is, after all, the Christmas season. It is a time of excitement, joy, and preparation as everyone enjoys the festivities of the “holiday season.” The language in our text about “people fainting with fear and with foreboding” could hardly seem more inappropriate.
But in the Church we know that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The name “Advent” is based on the Latin word for “coming” or “arrival.” Advent prepares us to celebrate the coming of the Son of God into this world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and then born of the virgin Mary at Christmas. But we know that this coming was only our Lord’s first coming. And so our preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ cannot take place without also thinking about how it points forward to his second coming on the Last Day.
Like last week’s Gospel lesson, this one also takes place during Holy Week. We learn at the beginning of the chapter that comments had been made about the temple - how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings. The temple that that had been built by Herod the Great was indeed a marvel of the ancient world. But in response to this, 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.” Our Lord said the temple would be destroyed, and so he was asked, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
Prior to our text, Jesus has been talking about this event which occurred in 70 A.D. when the Romans took Jerusalem as they put down the Jewish revolt. Our Lord said, “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.”
Yet the destruction of the temple was an act of judgment by God that pointed forward to an even greater event. Like the mighty acts of judgment in the Old Testament, it pointed forward to the great Day of the Lord. It pointed to the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day.
In our text, Jesus 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.” Our Lord describes scenes of cosmic distress as creation itself reacts to the coming Lord. We learn that people will be gripped with fearful fainting and foreboding as they see these things take place.
But these events are simply the overture that announces Christ’s arrival. Jesus says, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” All will see the visible return of Jesus Christ. As the angels told the disciples at Jesus’ ascension: “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.” Christ is described as the awesome figure of Daniel chapter seven who comes in a cloud with power and great glory.
It would seem that this would be frightening. But instead, Jesus instructs, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our Lord says that we are not to react to his return with fearful fainting and foreboding. Instead, we are to straighten up and raise our heads looking at our Lord, because our redemption is drawing near. We are to recognize the return of Jesus Christ as the consummation of his salvation – as the final completion of his work to free us from Satan, sin, and death.
We will be able react in this way to the event of our Lord’s power and glory in his second becoming, because we have known him in his first coming and what this says about the Lord he is for us. During Advent we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, the One born to the virgin Mary is the Son of God. He is God in the flesh – true God and true man. This is God entering into our world and becoming one of us.
There is nothing about this that looks like power and great glory. Instead, it is a helpless baby lying in a feeding trough meant for animals. This is how Jesus the Christ’s life begins. And this beginning foreshadows how it will end. Yes, Jesus will perform mighty miracles of healing, and even raising the dead. But he won’t seize power the way the rulers of this world do.
Instead, Jesus is in Jerusalem during Holy Week to suffer and die. In the next chapter our Lord quotes words about the suffering Servant of Isaiah chapter 53 as he says: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” Jesus Christ was numbered with us. He took our place before God as he died on the cross. He gave his body and shed his blood in death as he received God’s wrath against our sin. The baby in the helplessness and humility of the manger at the beginning of his life, died as a man in the utter humiliation and weakness of the cross.
Jesus, the baby born in Bethlehem had ended up as a dead body buried in a tomb. But that was where God put him for you. He put him there in order to defeat death itself. For on Easter, on the third, day God raised Jesus from the dead. The risen Lord was with his disciples for forty days. And then Jesus ascended into heaven as the exalted Lord. Peter announced on the Day of Pentecost: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
The exalted Lord Jesus has given us new birth in baptism through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has called us to faith in the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. Because of this, we know that we are the children of God. We know that we are justified before God. And for this reason Jesus’ words in our text are true for us: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Because Jesus is our Lord, his return will be an occasion of joy.
During Advent, we are preparing to celebrate our Lord’s first coming as he entered into our world to redeem us from sin and death. It’s an exciting time as we get ready for Christmas. But our text alerts us to the fact our preparation cannot be limited to the celebration of Christ’s first coming. Our life in the faith is one that must also be prepared for his second coming.
Jesus 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.” The word translated as “dissipation” was associated with carousing and drinking. Jesus warns against being distracted. He warns against partying our way through life as if nothing else mattered. He warns against being focused on the cares and concerns of this life instead of Jesus. These are words that remind us of the parable of the sower and how the seed that fell among the thorns is described as those who hear the word, “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.”
Instead, we need to be people who live lives of faith that are firmly fixed on Jesus Christ. Our Advent preparation – our preparation for Jesus’ second coming - is one that takes place every Sunday here in the Divine Service. In the Sanctus of the liturgy we sing, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” We do this as Jesus Christ is about to come to us in the Sacrament of the Altar. Here Jesus gives us the forgiveness he won on the cross. It is the risen and exalted Lord who comes to us in his true body and blood. And every time he does this, he reminds us of the fact that he will come again in glory on the Last Day.
Jesus lives! He is risen! He is ascended! He is exalted! And he has told us: “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.”