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 (Text: Matthew 3:1-12)

John the Baptist

John the Baptist’s appearance is jarring.  There’s no getting comfortable around a man who wears camel fur and eats nothing but bugs and honey.  But why? I’m sure there’s someone weirder in Portland.

John is uncomfortable because of what his image brings up.  He eats locusts, and yet he preaches a plague far greater than the one which devoured Egyptian crops.  It is a plague which even the sons of Abraham may suffer.  This is unthinkable who have status in the church—the Pharisees and Sadducees—who have labored so long and hard to preserve the church, would be cut down and thrown into the fire.  How could God be so callous and not recognize their many contributions? Doesn’t he see how many hours they’ve labored, they’ve studied, they’ve prayed, how many things they have dedicated (and have little brass plaques next to them).  All of it may be gone like the empire of hard-hearted, idolatrous Pharaoh, if they only fear the wrath to come and have no godly remorse (contrition for their sins) and a plea to God’s mercy which endures forever (Ps. 107:1). God will not show favorites, but will honor and bless the faith which He has created.

John eats wild honey like Samson who found it in the carcass of a lion he slayed with his bare hands. Samson was able to slay the Philistines for solving his riddle, but it is with John’s bare words that he slays his hearers–not just the uncircumcised, but all who are uncircumcised in their heart—that is they do not rightly fear God.  John announces the coming of the One who “will open [His] mouth in a parable; [who] will utter dark sayings from of old.” (Ps. 78:2) The One mightier than Samson, whose words will bring about “the fall and rising of many in Israel.” (Luke 2:34)

John also wears a leather belt, reminiscent of the garments of skin with which God clothed our first parents after they sinned. They were unable to be conscientious objectors and adopt a vegan outlook.  Rather the leather belt taught them that peace with God came at the cost of another’s life. Too often have we, their children, put God to the test, doing what is wicked and then when the lightning bolt didn’t come or we didn’t get swallowed by the earth, we presumed on His kindness and assumed His inaction we could get away with it.  That leather belt, like the garments for Adam and Eve, along with the tens of thousands of animals slaughtered on Israel’s altars, and ultimately God’s son sacrificed on the cross, ought to teach us to rightly appreciate what it cost to have “peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)

And finally, he wears a hairy cloak, to remind us of Jacob.  Jacob gained the blessing from his father, Isaac, by works not his own.  He got the blessing which rightly belonged to his brother, beloved of his father.  And yet in this wondrous and mysterious exchange, the one John pointed to covers us with His own robes of righteousness and the Father Himself sees not our treachery, evil works, and lukewarm hearts, but the perfect work of the only-begotten Son.

Nevertheless, John is not someone you would want at your holiday party. There’s also no getting comfortable with John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” There’s no sugar-coating this preaching.  It’s offensive, but not for the sake of shock value.  It’s invasive because it exposes our hearts. It shows us that God actually is watching our life—“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” (Ps. 32:8)  This is necessary, too.

God’s Law comes into our heart and demolished any sense that we’re good enough for God.  It exposes our hearts and shows none of us to be righteous. It shows us how comfortable we’ve been in ourselves and our sins, brushing them under the rug and making excuses for them.  All the while, the Master of the house is near—at the very gates!

This is the way God prepares the way for the Christ, and how we ought to prepare ourselves for Christmas.  While the world is hanging “holiday balls” and droning on about the “spirit of the season,” Christians are watchful, hearing the Word of God and taking an honest look in the mirror of God’s Word, embodied in John the Baptist.  What we find is not good, and that’s why we are glad that God sent a Savior.

There’s been a push by Christians to “put Christ back in Christmas” and while that’s admirable, there’s a better way to do that than just saying, “Merry Christmas.”  Christmas is about salvation, and Jesus only comes for sinners. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)  If you say you have not sinned, you don’t need to look forward to Christmas.

John was a spectacle.  People from all around had come to see and hear him.  Still today, the celebration of Christ’s birth brings out many who ordinarily wouldn’t.  While many will be looking for nostalgic feelings and familiar carols, I hope you find what God sent John the Baptist for.  Be a real sinner, be someone who knows why Jesus came. Knowing that, repent and be saved!

Christ’s coming is a warning that the axe is laid at the root of the tree.  Every tree that thinks its fruit is lovely will be cut down and burned. Everyone who says they have not sinned deceives themselves.  But the one who truly bears the fruit of repentance and faith is the one who has heard the spiritual message of Christ’s arrival, and look forward to His coming again.  Amen.