Lift Up Your Heads!

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Grace to you and peace from the One who was and who is and who is to come, our Lord Jesus Christ.

This Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Advent, that is, of the new liturgical year. Advent is a short season, so today we are already most of the way through it. Advent is also a curious season. It really doesn’t feel much like a season of the year for most of us. The Church tries hard to make it seem like a season. We shift to the color blue. We light candles on an Advent wreath. We sing special hymns, which we never sing in other seasons. We preach on Advent themes like hope, peace, joy and love.

But still the season is strange. It might be because in Advent we are observing a season of waiting, especially waiting for Christ to come at Christmas. Yet, it is so easy to be so intensely focused on Christmas that we simply lose all sense of Advent as a season of its own.

There is, I think, another reason. In Advent we are waiting for Christ to come at Christmas, but as Christians we also remember during Advent that we are waiting for Christ to come again “to judge the living and the dead.”

And what strikes me is that when the Scriptures talk about that final coming of Christ, not only does they use the language of hope, peace, joy and love but also another human emotion—that of fear. Now fear is a powerful feeling and if we are not careful we can turn to it all too readily. Did anyone ever see or read the Left Behind series of books and movies? These were designed to scare the heck out of you so you would get saved. Playing on people’s fear is much easier than inspiring love or hope or simple joy.

But there is no denying that when the early Christians spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus, they thought of a great day of judgment. Even though this thought may appear to us to be so unlike Christmas, there is no denying that Scripture is all about a people gathered to await the Lord’s coming in judgment and glory and that is to be taken extremely seriously. It is enough to make you tremble.

And it should. Because when we think about Jesus’ second coming, we may ask ourselves: are we rightly prepared? Is our heart free from evil thoughts and desires? Is our heart capable of becoming God’s dwelling place? That is why Advent has traditionally been a time of preparation for Our Lord’s comings, time of self-examination. Our psalm for today won’t let us forget this: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in His holy place?” (Psalm 24:3).

It is rather remarkable that today we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, so blithely, whereas previously generations of Christians trembled at the day of God. Scripture pictures disaster and upheaval as God’s judgment rains down on those who arrogantly and insolently despise His people. “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,” Jesus said (Mark 13:24).

Such is the psalm for today, Psalm 24. Some scholars suggest that this psalm may have been written for the return of the Ark of the Covenant to the tabernacle—a kind of call and response between the priests and the people, calling God’s people to worship. It describes the coming of God as a victor returning from combat against the hostile powers of chaos, a battle in which the Lord as the Creator established dominion over the world. When the priests are asked, “Who is this King of glory?” they answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! …The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!” (Psalm 24:8, 10) If it doesn’t make us tremble then we are not paying attention.

But that is just the problem. We are not paying attention. Maybe we have grown accustomed to thinking that Jesus isn’t coming at all. We grow cold, indistinguishable from the unbelieving world, not minding if we are selfish, but just going on as usual, unconcerned about our neighbor or God’s judgment on our sin. Or maybe we have become so accustomed to the idea of God’s love and of His coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the tremble of fear that His coming should arouse in us. For whatever reason, we are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable bits out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that God the Creator draws near to the people of His little earth and lays claim to us. But the coming of God is truly not only good news of great joy, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Martin Luther summed it up well in His explanation of the First Commandment by saying: “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” Did you notice the order? Fear, love and trust.

For only when we have felt the fear of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable love. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only forgiven sinners can be happy. God wants always to be with us, wherever we may be—in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us—Immanuel. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us.

And, therefore, we can rejoice—under the Christmas tree, in Christmas carols, with tired feet, through long hours spent shopping, with light and decorations, in festive foods, in songs about Christmas we used to know—we can rejoice much more than anyone else in the world is able; because we know that God’s grace and goodness will once again draw near. We think of all of God’s goodness that came our way last year; more importantly we sense something of this marvelous home to come. Jesus comes in judgment and grace: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Psalm 24:7).

“But do not fear [for]… you shall call His name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins… and they shall call His name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:20, 21, 23).

Immanuel, God with us—that is another shocking reality of Advent. Even now, Christ is coming; Jesus stands at the door. He asks you for help in the form of the poor, in the form of a distressed human being in torn clothing. He asks you to sacrifice in the form of your wife and children. He confronts you in every person that you meet. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes His demands. Even now.

And even now, He saves you. You see, doors built by humans are not adequate to admit the King of glory. Rather it is the human heart—your heart—where Christ seeks to make a dwelling. In just a few moments we will eagerly wait to hear the name of God spoken in Baptism, and at that utterance the gates to (Rachel’s) heart will be opened. The proclamation of that name—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is the key. It is the same name in which we invoked at the beginning of our service this morning, the same name in which our forgiveness was spoken. The doors are wide open. And God is coming in His glory, in order that we may celebrate with a feast, a feast where the King is once again present, once again saving His people from their sins.

That is the great seriousness and the great joy of Advent. As in Psalm 24, Christ stands at the door. In fact, He lives in our midst. Will you shut the door or receive him still?

Christ is still coming. It is not yet Christmas. But it is also not the great final Advent, the final coming of Christ. Through all the advents of our life that we celebrate goes the longing for the final Advent, where Christ says: “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent—that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when God will appear enthroned in all His glory, when all brothers and sisters in Christ will rejoice in the words of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). Learn to wait and to pay attention, because he has promised to come. Even now He stands at the door. And we call Him: “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!” Amen.

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