Scary things are going on and will only increase. But don’t be afraid! Be excited! That is today’s Gospel in a nutshell. The return of Christ is imminent. Just like the buds on the fig tree, ready to burst open with flowers that give way to fruit, are a sign of the impending rebirth of spring and summer and the happiness of those seasons, so are the signs today. We see all around us distress of nations, wars and rumors of wars, disease, famine, rampant false doctrine, abounding lawlessness, and the love of many growing cold (Mt. 24:9-12). Maybe it’s been said to you, or maybe you’ve said it yourself: it wasn’t this bad when you were younger. The world really is getting worse by the day. As bad as these things may be, as evil as they make these days, all of these signs are a 70-degree day in early March. Just like that unseasonably warm day in March reminds you that soon you can put away sweaters and open your windows and smell the flowers in bloom, so do these signs tell you that better things are coming. Soon wars will cease and peace will reign. Soon diseases and famines will be a thing of the past as everyone sits at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom. Soon false doctrine and false prophets and false christs will no longer plague the faithful but will spend eternity in the flames prepared for the devil and his angels. Soon Christ will rend the heavens wide, coming to unbar the way to heaven’s crown. Look up and lift up your heads because your Redemption draws near!
That’s great, but what do we do in these days between now and the day the Sun of Righteousness arises with healing in His wings, and we go out like stall-fed calves, merry and without a care in the world? Jesus tells us what to do: “Watch therefore, and pray always.” Just because good things are coming doesn’t mean that today will be without care and worry. Just because the Bridegroom’s coming is delayed doesn’t mean He’s giving you time to give in to sin and its desires. The world is not going to get better. The devil is not going to wait patiently for the Last Day. He is not content to let us go quietly and without a fight. He will step up his temptations. He will place in your way the very things that tempt you, eager to lure you into unrepentance, eager to have you thumb your nose at God and tell Him, “I know this is wrong, but Your return is a long ways off, and I’ll repent before You get back, so turn a blind eye now and forgive me when I’m all done.”
Advent rouses us from our sleep. It reminds us that we have become too content with our sin. We give in today, always putting off repentance, always putting off the hard work of amending our sinful ways until tomorrow. Advent, and especially Gospels like today’s that tell us of Christ’s return, reminds us that the old adage, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is the siren song of the devil. The true way of life, the way God would have His children live is in repentant prayers, with our eyes looking up to the clouds, our minds fixed on things above, not on things on the earth (Col. 3:2). Advent reminds us that this life isn’t supposed to be comfortable. That’s why our Advent Collects begin with that phrase, “stir up.” Being stirred up is not a comfortable thing. We’re asking God to do something in our lives that is unpleasant. When we prayed, “stir up our hearts” we asked God to drive us to our knees in repentance, to drive us to our wits end with our sin and desire to commit it. It’s not a comfortable thing for us, and God doesn’t want to have to do it either. But just as parents discipline in love for the good of the child, so does God discipline us and drive us to repentance here for our eternal good, because He loves us and does not want us to perish eternally.
But as much as Advent works to rouse you from your sin, it reminds you that your Savior from that sin has come, comes to you today, and will come again to deliver you from this body of death and a dying world. Your God has never been content to leave you in your sin. From the foundation of the world He knew that sin would enter into His creation, so He planned for your redemption. He sent Jesus Christ to bear your sin and be your Savior. He hears your pleas for mercy, for forgiveness, for strength in the face of temptation and answers them all with Himself. He covers you with His Blood in Holy Baptism. In Holy Absolution He reminds you that He shed His Blood on the cross to pay for your sin and to reconcile you to the Father. In Holy Communion He gives you His very Blood to drink to forgive your sins, to strengthen your faith, and to remind you that His death covers you, that His righteousness is yours until the day you leave this earth. He has given you all of this to remind you that if ever you sin, you have an Advocate with the Father. Jesus Christ Himself is the sacrifice for your sins (1 Jn. 2:1). They are washed away; you are forgiven.
The gifts Jesus give don’t end there. He knows that the signs of the end will alarm you, that the increasing evil of these last days can be threatening to the faith. So He has created His Church to be the gathering of all those called out of the world and its deathward drift. He has sent His Holy Spirit to gather you together and to give you all the gifts which create, preserve, and strengthen your faith. He has not left you to go it alone. In your struggles with sin, in your witnessing of the signs of Jesus’ imminent return, you are not left comfortless. You have the Holy Spirit who has made His home in you to speak into your heart and mind the very Words of Jesus. You have the Holy Spirit at work in the Sacraments to deliver to you all that Jesus has done for you. You have the Holy Spirit gathering you together with your Christian brothers and sisters in the Church, reminding you that you are not alone, that there are any number of people just like you, struggling with sin, and eager for the Lord’s return to bring about the end of sin, death, and the devil. Here in this place is all the comfort you need to be prepared for the end of all things—here you have the Word, the Sacraments, the family God has given you for comfort and encouragement, people to encourage you to lift up your eyes and watch with them for the Lord’s return.
Yes, scary things are going on and their frequency and intensity will increase. But do not be alarmed. Be encouraged by these things because they mean Jesus is coming soon, and He is coming for you, to lead you with a mighty hand from exile to the Promised Land. His coming will be your greatest rejoicing because still His dazzling body bears those dear tokens of His Passion, the stripes with which He purchased and won you, making you His own. When Jesus returns, you will see the nail prints in His hands and feet, the place where the spear opened His side and you will rejoice because they are for you. And because those marks were made for you, Jesus has come back for you, just as He promised. Look up and lift up your heads; your Redemption draws near! Because you are His, Baptized into Jesus’ life and death, you are worthy to stand before the Son of Man, His redeemed, His chosen, safe and free.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.