Second Sunday in Advent (Populus Zion)

Readings: Malachi 4:1–6 | Romans 15:4–13 | Luke 21:25–36

Text: Luke 21:25-36

“Encouragement and Instruction for the Last Days”

Talk of the end of the world again?  Didn’t we just have that less than a month ago?  This topic can leave us weary (possibly) disappointed that the end has not yet come.  Isn’t this what the Church has been preaching for nearly 2,000 years?  This is what our natural thinking tells us.

But for His part, our Lord cannot stop teaching these lessons to us.  He knows our weakness and He knows how great the task to which He has called us.  That’s actually why this Gospel lesson is very appropriate for us to hear in the season of Advent.  The children of God are waiting for something better than this fleeting life.  St. Paul describes us by saying, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil. 3:20-21)

Since our citizenship is in heaven, and our hope is coming on the clouds, the Lord admonishes us,

33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 “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. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 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.”

If we look to ourselves, there would be reason to despair about remaining faithful to the end.  That’s often what we do when we fear that the Church will pass like so many other things have fallen into disuse.  But rather than basing our strategy on our weakness, the Lord teaches us to find the truth, the power, and the perseverance in Him.

Yes, it’s true that Satan is a vigorous enemy, and he holds ample sway on earth.  As the country moves away from its Christian tradition, ungodliness is on the rise with militant fervor.  The Bible is held in contempt, and could easily be deemed as hate speech in the current political climate.   Satan and his demonic host have their sights on the children of God.  He will offer us an easy way out, a way to avoid suffering and scorn.

What’s our recourse against these attacks?  It’s not by our planning or cleverness.  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   Flee to the Word of God and prayer!  Despite how powerful the enemies are, and how many swell their ranks, the Lord and His Word endure forever.  They may appear to have the victory at this moment, but it too is fleeting, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’” (Psalm 2:4-6)

Remember that when the Lord came, the powers of the Evil One did try to destroy Him and thwart his purpose.  Herod tried to destroy Him; numerous times his opponents tried to seize Him before it was time; and even in the tomb they sealed it with government authority and a regiment of soldiers.  But none of those things threw off the plans of the God of heaven and earth.

When we wield and proclaim His Word, Satan must submit.  This ought to encourage and remind us, as St. John tells us, “You are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)  The Lord will hold back the flood of Satanic attacks, and He will neither leave nor forsake His beloved Bride, the Church.

Part of our battle as the Church Militant, sheltered by our Lord of Hosts, is that we are distinct from among the people of the world:

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.

There’s a temptation to feel privileged having knowledge of the end of the world.  Yet, what your Lord Jesus calls you to is to live in anticipation of the world to come.  How then, should we live?  We heard it last Sunday from Romans 15: “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom. 13:11-12) and today we heard this encouragement: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4)  The Word of God is not just our defense against the forces of evil, but it’s also our hope as people who have been touched by the lies of the world and our own mistakes.  You and I have been living in the world so long, it’s easy to take the judgments of the world for truth.  What do you mean marriage isn’t just about my personal happiness?  How dare you say that people can’t achieve whatever they put their collective minds to!  How could it hurt to watch questionable movies or listen to music about immorality when we clearly know it’s wrong?  The Lord needs to purge corrupt these ideals and hopes from us with His Word.  We must not imagine ourselves strong or smart enough to keep ourselves unstained.

It is the Lord who is standing with us, as we watch the proverbial fig trees.  He is the one who teaches us what to look for, and who protects us against being swept away with the ungodly in their ignorance and making unfaithful demands of God.  Our lives may seem like a long run—especially if we are young—yet your Lord promises not only that He will uphold you through this trial, but He promises, “You will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

And before our release—whether in death or when the Lord appears in glory—we live as those who know the end:

25 “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, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This end hasn’t come yet, but we know that it most definitely will.  In light of that, the Lord wants us to do His will: to tell others His good news so that people may be delivered out of darkness and be saved from this grim end.

He will save us . . .

It’s hard to maintain a fervent pace in witnessing to those around us.  It’s hard because of our doubt.  We assume that there will always be more time, another better time.  So, we hold of telling others of our hope in Christ.  This is the worst kind of procrastination, because a world without Christ is dead in their trespasses and sins.

The Lord does not call us to the task of preaching to the whole world, but He does put us in where we are to be His witnesses.  All around us there is a delusion that we can we have a better life by our own efforts.  Optimism is good, but this hope is vain, because it doesn’t acknowledge sin for what it is, or need Christ as the only Savior.  We tell one another “Have a good day,” or “ take care,” but how empty that wish is!  By our living in hope in God our Savior, the Lord shows others the true way which leads to eternal life. 

Our Lord Jesus will use our lives of patience endurance, of trust in Him, in suffering on account of His Word, to witness to the souls around us.  The Word He puts on our lips has the power to do this!  Even as the world embraces carnal passions more, we who follow the Lord and Redeemer will stand out in greater relief.

And at the time He appoints, He will deliver us from the evil of this world.  This is the hope to which we press, in His strength, and which we want for all around us.  Amen.

Second Sunday in Advent (Luke 21:25-36)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Second Sunday in Advent (Populus Zion) + December 9, 2018

Text: Luke 21:25-36

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

In these Last Days, Jesus gives us the signs to look for to know that His return is near.  And let’s check them off:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places… they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:6-12)

All of these things are happening this very moment.  It’s not just in the minds of the aged; the world really is worse than it has ever been.  Criminals are more brazen and more grotesque.  Children can’t play in their front yard because of perverts and human traffickers.  Terrorists are willing to commit more heinous acts in the name of their idea of god, or just to get attention.  This isn’t only because fewer people are going to church.  There is an increasing wickedness on the rise in the world, and we are witnesses or (and sometimes participants in) it.

But it’s important that our response is guided by our Lord, not by nostalgia.  Jesus doesn’t tell us simply to wring our hands and lament the loss of the “good old days.”  No, He tells us: “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.”  Those two words are a warning to us about what might happen in the face of times like this.  Dissipation is the evaporation of faith, as if our faith in Christ were a cloud that is here one minute and blows away the next.  The other, drunkenness, describes our joining in with those around us in an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”[1] attitude.  If things are getting rough, let’s just indulge in escapism and find distractions to take our minds off how bad things really are.

No, rather than follow the world in its downward spiral, Jesus tells us: “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.”  What sets us apart from the world as it’s going down the toilet is our faith.  Stay awake!  Don’t just go on autopilot with everyone around us, with a startled reaction that this world is beyond repair.  Don’t resign yourselves to the way things are and light a joint with the rest of the ignorant.  Instead, be at prayer that you would have the strength to escape these terrible conditions and faithless times.

These Last Days aren’t simply about weeding out the weak from the strong; they are a time for separating those who put their hope in the Lord and take Him at His Word and those who ultimately reject Him.  As things get worse in the world, the people of God look to Him for strength and deliverance.

The world, twisted and getting worse as it is, is a sign that we should be ever getting ready for His coming.  Free yourselves of the myth that God wouldn’t possibly let it get worse than we can handle.  This is the old saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  That might be how your tame, blue-eyed Jesus on the wall works, but it’s not how the true God does.  Here Jesus is not telling us to pray that none of these things would happen, but that we would have strength to escape them.

Jesus is our best example of God’s will for us, so consider how He faced His hour of trial: When He was on the Mount of Olives and facing His passion and death, He prayed to His Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”  He knew full well that it was necessary for Him to endure the cross, or our salvation would be null and void.  But even still, He prayed.  And that’s what He commands His followers to do at times like this.

We are facing the end of the world, and whether or not we are witnesses to the last generation to be born on earth, Jesus commands us to pray, to continue meditating on His Word, and to endure these trials knowing that by them, God’s will is done.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 18), Jesus tells the parable of a widow “to the effect that [we] ought always pray and not lose heart.”  The widow implores an unrighteous judge for justice, but the message of the parable is that we not lose faith in God, for “will He delay long over [his elect who cry to Him]?” (Luke 18:1-8).  But about the end of the world, He says, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”

Our faith continues looking to God, even while the world is crashing down around us.  No matter whether times are prosperous or it’s the day before Jesus’ return, the faithful are still praying: “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”  Faith is what enables us to say Amen to that prayer, because it means that we trust God is actively bringing His good and gracious will to bear on earth as it is in heaven, and even as this world passes away, our Father in heaven has not changed or lost His hold on world history or our lives.  Why?  Because the bedrock of our salvation is God’s faithfulness—“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Himself up for us all, how will He not with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Our Lord calls us to continued meditation on His Word. David might have seemed like a dull fellow because He wrote Psalm 119, but in times of deepest distress is when we need God’s Word to guide us the most.  “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your Word…Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will keep it to the end…The Lord is my portion, I promise to keep your words” (Psalm 119:9, 33, 57).  That’s because meditation on the will of God is how we don’t get swept away with our own ideas or those of the unbelieving world.  Jesus calls each of us to remember how weak we are—“the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) If only we believed what that means, we would be blessed because we would humbly seek God’s will in His holy Word all the time, because that’s where the Spirit speaks to us!

Perhaps the most difficult part of these last days is that our God calls us to suffer.  From our Lord’s example, we learn there’s nothing wrong with praying to be spared the cup of suffering if there is another way.  Nevertheless, we children of God need to realize that sometimes His will is for us to suffer.  Consider the spiritual teaching of James: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) Who among us would choose trials?  Nevertheless, God sends them as means of refining and firming up our faith. He sends them with the reward of becoming steadfast in Christ, and steadfast in our faith.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:32

Fear Not, The Kingdom of God is At Hand (Luke 21:25-36)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Second Sunday in Advent + December 10, 2017
Text: Luke 21:25-36

Let’s be honest, the things described in the end times are scary!  They make even the worst terrorist attack seem like a hiccup, because it’s not just going to be in one city or a few cities.  It’s going to be worldwide, with even frightful signs in the heavens above.
Then, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  Game over.  No more second chances, no more putting off turning to Jesus.  For those who have despised the Lord Jesus as Savior, they will say to the mountains, “Cover us,” and to the hills, “Fall on us.”[1]  Yet, for those who love the Lord, “Straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Fear about the Lord’s second coming is a real thing.   Here are some things we’re afraid of:
We want there to be a easier way.  When we go to Portland, and there’s a big line of cars backed up, we want to be in the car with that person who knows a back road.  If we’re buying a car or a TV, we want to be that guy who gets a great deal on it.  Perhaps the end times is something like this.  Maybe there’s a secret code to unlock that will help us sail through without batting an eye.  What’s the significance of “the time of the Gentiles” in verse 24, or maybe there’s a special sign of the fig tree that other people will miss.  When it comes to tribulation and distress, we want to have an exempt card.  This is the method of the apocalyptic cults who gather around their leader, hoping the Lord will notice their astuteness while the rest of the world burns.
Well even if there isn’t a secret code of the end times to decrypt, we’re still afraid that faith won’t hold out.  After all, life is long and the end of the world seems so far off.  Everyone so far who has hoped for a short period until Jesus’ return has been disappointed.  We fear for our children as they grow up, that they would persevere in the faith.  We fear for those who we know used to go to church but now have more pressing things to do with their life.  We fear for the countless numbers of souls who have never heard the Gospel—even in our own country.  Out of fear, people come up with complicated scenarios about the Last Days.
It’s also possible you’re afraid you don’t have what it takes to make the grade in the end.  Are you afraid that faith is not enough?  It sounds too easy to say that a person is “saved by grace through faith and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God.”[2]  It sounds too simple, too easy.  It must take something more!  After all, your eternal destiny rests on whether you’ve got this right.  Maybe we should take a popular vote, and see what the majority of people think (kind of like we depend on star ratings for buying products).  The trouble you’ll find is the majority of humanity agrees faith isn’t enough.  The majority say you must add some effort of your own on the road to salvation.  But what could be better than a fellow sinner’s opinion?  God’s Word, and He would not and will not deceive us.
What would be most helpful is to read this as a believer and child of God.   Listen to how your Lord speaks of nearness: “Your redemption is drawing near…you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  The nearness of the Son of Man and His Kingdom is good news, right?  He is near, not in the sense of time or distance, but of divine presence.  He is intimately joined to His people on earth: He shares your flesh and He knows your weakness.  He has made the all-atoning sacrifice on the cross, so that He, though holy and exalted, can dwell with you and bear you up.  The children of Israel in the wilderness had God’s presence in the glory cloud, but a believer has His very Spirit dwelling within their body!  He is near to you with His creative, renewing, and sanctifying Word.  He is near you with the assurance of grace and sonship that He made to you in Baptism, and He is near you when you eat and drink His Holy Body and Blood.  Truly his last words in Matthew’s Gospel were not a lie: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”[3]
Here’s an interesting observation: Those who are most afraid and fixate the most on the End Times are those who also reject the power of the Means of Grace.  Along with a lopsided view of Revelation as the code to world history, not one of them teaches the efficacy of Baptism.  Not one of them confesses the authority of the Absolution for forgive sins on earth.  Not one believers in the bodily presence of the risen and ascended Lord in the Sacrament.  For many, the Bible is more information about God than the realized story of God dwelling with sinners and making them His children.  But where the Sacraments are, there is the divine presence of the Lord with His people.  And where the Lord is, there is freedom, and there is His abiding peace—even in the midst of turmoil in the world.
But there is a warning for believers, lest they wrap themselves up in a warm blanket of delusion34 “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.”  There is a very real danger for Christians to grow indifferent while we wait for the Lord’s return.
Certainly it could come in the form of drifting away from church and losing your faith.  That’s the obvious one that we can see with our eyes.  Plus, it makes us more comfortable to think that we can draw lines on where Jesus is going to find His sheep versus His goats.[4]
But even more dangerous is the unbeliever who sits in the pew every Sunday!  This is the Christian who comes to church and goes to Bible study just out of habit.  They listen for the pastor to say the right things—Ah! There he talked about sin!  Wow! I’m glad he mentioned that one!  Oh good he ended by talking about Jesus, so I can go home with a happy heart. This secure churchgoer is more interested in the social benefits that church membership gives—a shoulder to cry on, group activities, and a discounted rental hall.
But when the Lord comes back in glory, these people will be caught off-guard because it will become shockingly apparent that their life of repentance and faith was only lip service.  The Word of God did not touch their hearts so that they felt true terror over their sins and instead took the cross as God’s free pass.
If that scared you, Good!  It should.  Each of us should look in the mirror of God’s Word and be afraid of persevering in the faith.  Remaining a Christian in these Last Days is no human accomplishment.  We cannot do it, but for God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.
 “36 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.”
As we approach Christmas, we ought to all live in a healthy fear of God.  The God who came in the flesh is not the mild illustration which adorns our Christmas cards.  He is almighty!  He Is holy!   But it is His will for you to stand before Him redeemed on that Day.  Pray that your almighty, holy Savior would give you strength, purge away your sloth, and keep His Word in your heart throughout this life.  This is a prayer He delights to answer, because it is the very reason He came in the flesh.
Will it be easy or smooth?  Not likely.  Will there be scary moments as time draws to a close?  Definitely not.  But your God and Savior loves you and He is faithful.  23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”[5]  Amen.
[1] Luke 23:30
[2] Ephesians 2:8-9
[3] Matthew 28:20
[4] Matthew 25:33
[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24