December 10, 2007

Sermon for Advent II: Luke 21.25-36

“The day is coming.” No, not that day. Not Christmas Day. You have already begun to prepare for Christmas, I’m sure. Some presents are purchased, cards are mailed, parties planned. People put a lot of effort into preparing for that day. But that is not the day for which God’s Word calls us to prepare. “Behold, the day is coming,” says the LORD. What day? The day of judgment. “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze.” What will become of you on that day?

It is a frightening prospect, isn’t it? The day of God’s judgment is coming, and if you really look at yourself in light of the commandments of God, the only honest assessment is that you are among the arrogant, you are among the evildoers, and therefore you will be set ablaze, in the day when God’s wrath and fury will no longer be held back.

Do you fear that day? When men cease to fear God, they become afraid of everything else. There are many things to fear. In our world, our nation’s economy shows signs of strain, with the weakening dollar and problems in the credit markets; continuing war; terrorism. And then there are personal fears: cancer, relationships, children, how you will pay for December’s excessive spending.

But you are afraid of the wrong things. You should fear the judgment. Christ will return in judgment. When that comes to pass, men’s hearts will fail them “from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth.” The time to repent is now.

But God invites us to a different kind of fear: “For you who fear My name,” He says, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” Fear in the Scriptures does not always mean terror. Fearing God, fearing His name, means to revere God and place nothing else before Him. He tells us about the coming judgment and destruction of the earth not so we will be terrified about it, but so that we will learn to not fall in love with the things that are passing away. God drives us to insecurity in ourselves, so that we will look only to Him for our security. God drives us to despair of ourselves, so that we will look only to Him for our hope.

On that Day which is coming, there will be cosmic disturbances as have not been seen before - signs in the sun, moon, stars; nations in turmoil; the sea and the waves roaring. We see inklings of this already; creation is coming undone. That terrifies the human heart because we place our trust in our stuff. But for the Christian, harbingers of the judgment are signs not of the end, but of the beginning - the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth.

For us, judgment day has already happened. It was on the one day in history when there were signs unlike any other: the Day of our Lord’s crucifixion. That day is the central point of all history, the one event around which everything finds its meaning: the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians, when we encounter terrible days in our lives, when we hear about the terrors that are to come - God invites us to see all these things explained in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the God-man who took on our flesh, was born of the virgin Mary, was crucified, rose again, was seen by many witnesses, and ascended into heaven.

That’s the only way you can understand those words that sound so terrifying: “Pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. How can we possibly hope to stand on that day? “If You, O LORD, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared.” You are counted worthy to escape the terrors of the end, and be left standing before the Son of Man, only because God Himself has made you worthy in Jesus.

Confessing that, trusting in Jesus as your Redeemer, is what it means—in the language of Malachi—to fear the name of the Lord. Because of what Jesus did for you, the coming day of judgment is not your terror but your comfort: “For you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” What kind of healing? Healing of the body in the resurrection, purification of the soul from sin.

In this Christian life, we pray for that healing both as future event, and as something that begins now. In last week’s hymn we sang to Jesus, “Heal our ills of flesh and soul.” Union with Jesus in the Eucharist begins that healing now – taking away sins but also replacing them with His righteousness. Is that the healing you want?

The false Christian, the hypocrite, does not really want this healing. He has accepted himself as a sinner, and so trained himself to not take sin seriously. Advent calls us to repent of this kind of attitude, and pray both for the healing that will come at Christ’s return and also for the healing that He gives now, by grace, in the sacraments. Going to the sacraments, we pray, “O Lord, you see how wretched I am, how bound up I am in my own pride, how I pursue things that are not pleasing to You. Please forgive me, and heal me, and make me new. Come, Lord Jesus, and redeem me.”

There are many churches that have false teachings about the coming of Christ, and some have misled people by predicting certain days and times for the return of Christ. We should learn something from that, though, something we Lutherans are prone to forget: We can get so busy leading our lives, looking forward to holidays, family days, days of presents and food and parties and time off from work - we can get so busy looking to those days, that we stop thinking about and looking ahead to the coming Day of the Lord. The days we live now as Christians we seek to order in light of that Day. Knowing that that day is coming, we need not be chained to this world’s priorities and obsessions. The Christian yearns for the day when his sinful desires and habits will be completely obliterated – no more obsession with sex, reputation, possessions, and the like. No more addictions. No more arguments. No more pride.

For the majority of the year we use Divine Service Setting Three, the old “Common Service” best known to many of us as “Page 15” in The Lutheran Hymnal. It’s a wonderful setting of the Service for Holy Communion, and has much to recommend it. But it does have some things missing that are found in Divine Service Settings One and Two, like what we’re using today. Those services teach us to pray the prayer found in Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus!” That prayer was an important part of the worship of the first Christians. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is not a table prayer, that is the prayer of our whole life, the yearning of our spirit.

Advent reminds us that those words, “Come, Lord Jesus!” need to be our constant prayer in every season. The days, the holidays, the experiences of this life can make us entranced with the allurements of the world so that we don’t really want Christ and His kingdom to come; we prefer our own kingdom, and thoughts about our own kingship. “Take heed to yourselves,” Jesus says, and don’t get so caught up in the cares of this life. That stuff is not your life. That stuff is all going to be burned up, set ablaze. It counts for nothing. “Look to Me,” Jesus says. “Look to the Day I was born of the virgin as the Day I took on your human flesh. Look to the Day of My cross as the Day I suffered for your sins. Look to the Day of My resurrection as the Day I brought your flesh, joined to Me, up from death. Remember that heaven and earth will pass away, and look to the Day of My coming as the Day when you will be completely healed. The kingdom of God is near. That is the Day that is coming. Look to Me,” Jesus says, “for your healing, your forgiveness, your life.”

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