First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011
On the first Sunday in the Church Year our eyes go toward the end. Well, it’s not really the end. It’s more like a beginning. It’s the end of this life as we know it. But it’s the beginning of eternity where we will see no more death, experience no more pain, cry no more tears. On the first day of this new liturgical year our focus moves toward the glory that is the Last Day. The day when Christ will return for all to see. As He says, with great power and glory.
This is the description Jesus gives in the Gospel reading: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” It’s all very apocalyptic, the stuff of much glory but also of fear for many. What we don’t understand can be frightening. But Jesus tells us why the Last Day is the ultimate day of glory: “they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
But perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is that we don’t comprehend it in the spectacle and glory of it. We don’t ultimately understand it in its magnificence. Rather, we comprehend it in, for example, something like a fig tree. Or, take another example, servants put in charge of the household while the master is on a journey, and a doorkeeper commanded to keep watch. Christ’s return in glory and Judgment Day are comprehended in ordinary things like these. So Jesus can describe the details of the Last Day in their magnificence and then say something so plain and ordinary and even seemingly not all that important, such as, “Learn the lesson of the fig tree.”
Try that on somebody. Hey, let me tell you about the Last Day, Judgment Day. You see, it’s like this, you need to learn the lesson of the fig tree. If you were to set them up with something of magnificence as Judgment Day and then continue on in talking about something as ordinary as a fig tree, they might wonder what the big deal is. Or they might wonder if you really understand what the Last Day is about. But it is in the ordinary that the glorious is comprehended. If we look for glory apart from the ordinary means through which our Lord delivers it to us we will miss it. So learn from the fig tree its lesson: “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that He is near, at the very gates.”
Now we have to know what these things are that Jesus referring to. They are the things He describes earlier in the chapter from Mark that are Gospel reading is from, the part that isn’t in our Gospel reading for today. They are things we normally refer to as the End Times. When you see the fig tree beginning to bloom you know summer is near. It’s as simple as that. You can look at the signs and know when summer will happen. It’s an ordinary thing and Jesus is using something as ordinary to show us His glory. When you see the signs of the End Times you know that He is near. You know the end is coming. You know that He will return in glory imminently.
Those things He described earlier in the chapter are things we’ll recognize: false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution of Christians, families divided against each other. We have seen these things, haven’t we? They are so prevalent that they have become an ordinary part of life. And there is the point. God’s glory is comprehended in the ordinary. If we become numb to the signs of the End Times because they have become ordinary we miss the glory. If we are alert and read the signs and understand that He is near, that His return in glory is imminent, we won’t miss it. We will see it in all its glory. These are words Jesus spoke nearly two thousand years ago. They are as true today as they were then. Fig trees have continued to bloom and designate the coming of summer.
But Jesus also said this at the same time: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” How is it that this is true when generation upon generation has passed away when the signs of the End Times have continued to go on and the End has not come? It’s true that all of those things did take place in the generation to which spoke. How this was so was that the promise and prophecies of the Old Testament and His own prophecies are tied to His coming in the flesh and suffering and dying on the cross. His coming again in glory is no glory at all without His coming in the flesh and in humility and in suffering and in dying for the sins of the world. Any interpretation of prophecy in the Bible and any interpretation of the Bible in general apart from its being centered in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ is false interpretation and interpretation that leads you to miss the glory of the Last Day.
That’s why when Jesus continues on He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” They will not pass away because all that we see was brought into existence by His very Word. Even though it was all created to be eternal it will not last because of the Fall into sin. So it will all pass away but His words will never pass away. Words are ordinary things, aren’t they? With words God brought into existence the universe. With words our Lord prophesies His coming again in glory. His words will never pass away even though they are among the most ordinary of things. By His Word He declares us His people. We are His people who hear His Word and cling to the promise that He will come again in glory even if two thousand years seems like a long time for the promise to be fulfilled.
This shows all the more reason for us to be ready. Because the glorious is not comprehended in the spectacular, but in the ordinary. We should never underestimate the decision of God to bring His glory to us in the ordinary. The Incarnation is an amazing fact of history. God became flesh. He dwelt among us. God was born. He became a man. People are ordinary. We are a normal part of life. God became an ordinary man. The thing about ordinary human beings is that we don’t know when our Lord will return in glory. In fact, it’s just an ordinary part of life that even He didn’t know! This is Jesus’ startling statement: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Jesus is not afraid of the ordinary. He relishes it. He rejoiced in His incarnation, in being a man, in submitting Himself to His Heavenly Father. As a man, He truly did not know when He would return in glory. According to His human nature He was as in the dark as every other person, as the angels, as all except God the Father. Nevertheless, according to His divine nature, He knew everything.
This is difficult for us understand. No, it’s impossible for us to understand. But it’s tough for us to come to terms with. Jesus is God. How could He not know? It’s because His glory is comprehended in the ordinary. He doesn’t want to come in the spectacular but in the ordinary. The spectacular will come soon enough, on the Last Day. We need to be ready for it. In the meantime, the way we get ready for it is in the ordinary ways He’s given us. That’s why He says: “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Those ordinary ways are His Gospel and His Sacraments.
This is how He describes His coming again in glory: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.” Notice how simple this is. He doesn’t give spectacular details but rather an ordinary account of servants taking care of the master’s home and the doorkeeper keeping watch. This is it. This is how simple it is. This shows the ordinariness of it all. Jesus is the master. He has gone away, so to speak. He ascended into heaven and will return again in glory. As we await His return in glory we are His servants. We take care of His household on earth, the Church. We take our cue from the doorkeeper and keep watch. Jesus says: “Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest He come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
How do we do this? The Gospel and Sacraments. We partake of them. We live in them and are sustained by them. Jesus the Master has gone away for at time, after having come to secure salvation for the world in His suffering, death, and resurrection. But though He ascended into heaven He hasn’t just up and left. He comes to us often in His Gospel and Sacraments. In the preaching of the Gospel we receive Christ. In Baptism we are united with Christ. In the Holy Supper of our Lord we receive our Lord, partaking of His body and blood, eaten and drunk by us for the forgiveness of our sins. He does all of these things through ordinary means such words, water, and bread and wine. Why He blesses us eternally and strengthens us through these ordinary means is so that we can comprehend them. They’re not out there somewhere, they’re right here among us.
Why He does it through ordinary means is so that we can live as His servants as He described in His parable of the master going away and putting the servants in charge. The lives we live are ordinary lives. That doesn’t make them less special than if they were spectacular lives. In fact, it makes them more special because God works through the ordinary. His glory is comprehended in the ordinary. That means in your life. In the ordinariness of it all. In you serving in the ordinary ways you do day in and day out. Little things that you do to help others. Taking time out to comfort someone who is struggling. Making the effort to tell others who Jesus is and the salvation He brings. Carrying out the daily responsibilities you have at work and at home. Since these are all ordinary things you can be assured that God is the one who is at work in you. If it were up to you to do spectacular things for God then you would look to yourself and miss the glory of God that is comprehended in the ordinary.
Be ready. Stay awake. Rejoice and relax and be comforted in the ordinary. Mostly the ordinariness of God. God coming as a man. Jesus coming in order to suffer and die in your place. Coming to you in your Baptism and in His Holy Supper. Strengthening you so that you may be ready. The glory is coming. You will know it when it happens. When Christ returns in glory on the Last Day it will be unlike anything you know. And it will indeed be glorious. But don’t miss the glory that is comprehended in the ordinary. God loves to bless you in these ordinary means of His Gospel and Sacraments and there is nothing more glorious than that. Amen.