“When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” — Luke 21:28
According to the liturgical Church calendar, the last four Sundays before Christmas make up the holy Advent season. This word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming,” or “arrival.” Thus, the Advent season is that time period of the liturgical church year that is specially set aside for us to meditate, or focus, on the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ. In addition to the various sections of Scripture selected in the historic lection for the season of Advent, which set forth His various significant “arrivals” to His Church, we also learn about and focus on the Lord’s second visible advent (Luke 21:25-36), namely, His arrival on the Last Day “to judge the quick and the dead” (Apostles’ Creed). This final advent of our Lord Jesus Christ is one that is typically portrayed as a fearful and terrifying day – and rightly so. For, as the Bible clearly tells us, the Last Day will be a day of judgment “when the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, [and He shall] sit upon the throne of His glory. And before Him shall be gathered all nations; and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:31-33). It will be a day when “God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16); when “all that are in the graves shall hear His voice and shall come forth: They that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28-29).
This hardly seems like a day that anyone would look forward to, being aware of his own sinfulness, either from the natural knowledge of God’s wrath against sin (Romans 1:18ff.), or from the revealed knowledge of sin and all of its consequences found in the Lord’s holy Law (Romans 3:20; Romans 7:7ff.). It would stand to reason that no one would want to have all of his secret faults, all of his most embarrassing and heinous crimes, and all of the sinful deeds which he has tried so desperately to keep hidden and out of sight, displayed openly by the Lord from His holy record-books (Revelation 20:12). So, how is it, then, that we Christians are able to anticipate Christ’s second coming with joy? Why is it that we Christians, who by nature are sinners and malefactors, can look forward to that day with “boldness” (I John 4:17)? It is only because the Holy Scriptures set before our eyes the wondrous Gospel of God’s forgiveness of the world’s sins for Christ’s sake!
Even though we Christians know and sorrow over the fact that “[we] were by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3b), conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and abhor and lament the sins which we have committed because of our sinful flesh, the Gospel of Christ comforts us with the fact that for the sake of His vicarious satisfaction of divine justice, which He rendered to His heavenly Father on behalf and in the stead of us and all mankind, God “reconcil[ed] the world unto Himself, not imputing (or charging) their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). Because God charged the world’s sins to Christ (II Corinthians 5:21), who paid the penalty of our guilt by His passive obedience, He has “cast all [our] sins behind [His]back” and, according to His New Covenant, “[remembers] them no more” (Isaiah 38:17; Hebrews 10:17). Moreover, we no longer need to fear the Lord’s judgment on the Last Day because of our lack of the righteousness that He demands since the active obedience of Christ to both tables of the Law earned righteousness for every soul of man (Romans 5:19). That righteousness is personally put on our account by God when we confide in His mercy for Christ’s sake, “faith [being] counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5), so that we are regarded by God as if we had perfectly “fulfilled the Law” (Romans 13:8). The Apostle writes in Romans 8, “For what the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
As the Lord’s grateful people, we look forward to His second coming with joy because, as we read in Psalm 98, “He cometh to judge the earth; with righteousness shall He judge the world, and the people with equity” (v. 9); and we have confidence that in that day we will “be found in Him, not having [our own righteousness, which is of the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:9).
Let us look at some of the imagery which the Holy Scriptures use to set forth what the blessed relationship is between the Lord, “the Righteous Judge” (II Timothy 4:8) and His Church, namely, all true believers (Ephesians 2:19ff.), which the Holy Ghost has established by means of His precious Gospel. Holy Scripture sets forth the image, or metaphor, that Christ is the Lord of His household, and His people are His servants and stewards, waiting for the Lord to return to from His wedding (Luke 12:36). During His public ministry, when Jesus was visibly present with His disciples, they were glad because, as Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, the Bridegroom was with them; and they had the advantage of learning about the Kingdom of God directly from Him (Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34). “Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?” the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus. He replied: “Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the Bridegroom is with them?” Then and there was not the time for “fastings and prayers” (cf. Luke 2:37), that is, for the outward manifestation of contrition and repentance in anticipation of the Messiah’s coming, because Jesus, the Bridegroom, the Lord of His Church, was visibly with them.
Jesus went on to explain to the scribes and Pharisees that there would again be a time to fast, namely, when He would remove His local, visible presence from among them, ascending up to heaven to sit on the right hand of the Father in His exalted state. “The days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days” (Luke 5:35). Since “fasting” as an outward act is no longer required in the New Testament, neither “sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (Luke 10:13) as a visible sign of repentance, the Lord’s reference to fasting is a metaphorical image for genuine contrition, repentance and looking forward in faith to Christ’s second advent. [Compare in this connection another example of the Old Testament image of rending one’s clothes as an outward sign of sorrow (Genesis 37:29, 34; 44:13; Numbers 14:6; Joshua 7:6; etc.) giving way to the genuine sorrow of the heart that is truly Godpleasing (Joel 2:13; Psalm 51:17)].
Now, when He is not visibly present among them (cf. John 16:16ff.), is the time when Christ’s Church on earth is spiritually “fasting,” as it were, in true contrition and repentance, and “praying” for the Lord’s quick return (Revelation 22:20) in anticipation of His second visible advent. During this time, we Christians, as His servants and stewards, are charged with the stewardship of the Lord’s vineyard, household, and goods, namely, the ministration of the means of Grace in His local congregations, so that His Church daily has the assurance of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and the means whereby the Holy Ghost gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and preserves believers unto salvation (Luther’s Small Catechism, Third Article). We, as His servants, are constantly looking forward with joy to the Last Day when Christ will return to receive his believing sheep and lambs unto Himself (Matthew 25:34), always to be visibly present with His Church forevermore in the glory of heaven (Revelation 21:3). While we, as Christ’s Church await the second coming of our Bridegroom, we are reminded from the Scriptures concerning all of the joy and blessings that the Lord will bring with Him. “Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord when He cometh shall find watching. Verily I say unto you, that He shall gird Himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them…Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when He cometh shall find so doing” (Luke 12:37, 43). In this way, we Christians can joyfully anticipate Christ’s second coming.
In order to set forth the blessed relationship between the Lord and His people, Holy Scripture also uses imagery of Christ’s Church as a militant force, fighting against sin (II Corinthians 10:4-5). True believers in Christ, as individuals, wage daily war against the devil (I Peter 5:8; Romans 16:20), the world (John 15:19; I John 2:15), and their flesh (Galatians 5:16-17; Romans 7:23). And, in addition, Christ’s visible churches on earth wage spiritual warfare against all false teachers, churches and organizations which hold to and promote false teachings (II Corinthians 10:3-6; Titus 1:9-11; I Timothy 6:3-5).
This spiritual warfare conducted on the part of Christ’s Church is in no respect easy, for it takes a significant toll on all who fight. The flesh of the Christian makes him weak at times and tired of fighting, wondering when the Lord will come again to relieve him from this constant fighting (Luke 18:7-8; Psalm 6:3; Psalm 73:2-3, 17). If it were not for the unfailing grace of God, all of us, as Christian soldiers, would fall down on the field of battle and yield to our sinful flesh, becoming conformed to the image of this world and devoured by Satan, the roaring lion (I Peter 5:8). But the Lord has provided refreshment for His soldiers, whereby they are sustained and uplifted by the promises of Christ’s gracious Gospel and Sacraments, through which the Holy Ghost works to strengthen them in their faith and to cause them to lead a holy life to the praise of His grace (Psalm 1:3; Isaiah 40:31; 55:11). Thus, only with His help and strength, taking to ourselves “the whole armor of God,” we are “able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13)
While fighting on the spiritual battlefield, we Christians look forward to Christ’s second coming with joy because, on the Last Day, Christ and His heavenly hosts will appear to end the battle once and for all. While His Church militant anticipates the second coming of the “Lord of Hosts” (Psalm 46), who “maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth,” it is reminded from the Scriptures concerning all of the respite which the Lord graciously gives to those who have faithfully fought, and the reward of grace for their triumph, namely, the “crown of life” and “glory” that will never fade away (Revelation 14:13; 2:10; James 1:12; I Peter 5:4).
Therefore, as we Christians look forward to our Lord’s second visible advent, let us continue to anticipate it with joy, and not with fear of judgment. Let us thank our Lord Jesus Christ, who, at His first visible advent “bare our sins in His own body on the tree that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness; by whose stripes [we] were healed” (I Peter 2:24), and who, on the Last Day, will “appear the second time without sin unto salvation” to all them that look for Him (Hebrews 9:28). By faith in His perfect propitiation for our sins, “and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2), and the reconciliation which God granted to the whole world for His sake (II Corinthians 5:19), we stand before God forgiven of our many sins and are regarded as righteous and holy in His sight, so that we can confidently pray with the hymn-writer:
Our Hope and Expectation, O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, Desire of nations, o’er this benighted sphere!
With heart and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
the day of earth’s redemption, that brings us unto Thee.
(TLH 72, 4)
— D. P. M. (submitted through his pastor)