The prayer of advent is “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.” Three of the four Sundays in Advent have that phrase as the opening of the Collect. What does it mean to be stirred up? It might come across as “make us excited for.” These collects in their original Latin begin with the word excita, so that seems natural. In Latin, excita means rouse or awaken. But the English Church has translated this as “stir up.” So, what exactly does “stir up” mean? As Merriam-Webster defines it, “stir up” means to cause something, usually something unpleasant, to happen. That’s a different take on the season, isn’t it? In Advent we pray that the Lord would cause something unpleasant to happen to our hearts. Now, that unpleasantness is understood from a fleshly standpoint. We ask God to make us uncomfortable with the status quo, to make us eager for a completely different situation.
Today’s collect implored Jesus to enable us to serve Him with pure minds. To understand what this prayer means, we have to look at it through the lens of today’s Gospel. Jesus tells His disciples about the bad things that will mark the close of this world. Listen to that list of things once more: There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, distress of nations, people fainting with fear of what is happening. You might expect Jesus to end with “take cover” or something like we heard a few weeks ago, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (Mt. 24:19-20). This list of troubling signs naturally leads to hand-wringing, to the phrase we’ve all heard from our grandmother: “It was never this bad when I was your age!” To go through this life with an impure mind is to look at these signs and to grow in despair, to give into the increasing lawlessness and enmity between neighbors and family members. To have an impure mind is to look at evil events and ask with news commentators and late-night TV talk show hosts, “What good does prayer do?” “Does God even care?” That is the line of thinking our flesh craves because it’s the question the Devil asked Eve in Eden. The Devil wants us to question God’s goodness, to see Him as uncaring, spiteful, and maybe even enjoying our suffering a little too much.
But Jesus doesn’t end that list of signs of the close of the age with a word of warning or lament. He ends it with excitement! “Raise up your heads because your Redemption is drawing near!” Is that right? All this evil, all this sadness, all this strife unfolding around me is the sign of something good? Yes! It means our redemption, that is, the coming of Jesus to take us safely home, is coming soon! Remember what you just sang: “So, when next He comes in glory and the world is wrapped in fear, He will shield us with His mercy and with words of love draw near.” Jesus said this in His parable about the fig tree. He didn’t talk about leaves turning yellow and orange and red, letting you know that the death of winter is coming. He talked about buds. And what do buds mean? They mean spring and summer, they mean rebirth! All of this evil means the Kingdom of God is near!
Serving God with a pure mind means looking at evil like that. It doesn’t mean you can’t weep and lament how this sinful, dying world has affected you, your family, your friends, and your fellow human beings who you’ve never even met. Yes, be sad that tragedy has befallen them. Yes, be angry that Satan has so marred this once perfect world. But don’t wring your hands in anger. Don’t mourn without hope. Instead, take each evil as one more reason to look to Christ alone. Take each awful moment in your life to pray that heartfelt plea of the Book of Revelation: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” And be confident that, though heaven and earth will pass away, the Word of Christ will not pass away. Revelation not only gives us that plea, but it gives you Jesus’ answer: “Surely I am coming quickly.”
It’s not a pleasant process to be transformed into seeing the good in the evil. This is a stirring up we don’t like because it doesn’t only mean thinking differently, it means acting differently. The reason we sin is because we think God doesn’t see, that He’s not present in our life, that everyone else gets away with their evil without consequences, so we might as well give into the sin that gives us some kind of happiness in this awful world. But that’s exactly what Jesus warns us against. He tells us not to fall into the traps of drunkenness and dissipation, that is wasteful spending of time and money and self-indulgence. When we give into sin, then Jesus’ return comes like a trap, not as a deliverance. Repent, ask for a pure mind, a clean heart, and a right spirit so you are kept ever watchful and ready for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
That prayer will always be answered. As we will sing together at the close of this service: “Jesus comes again in mercy when our hearts are worn with care; Jesus comes again in answer to a fervent, heartfelt prayer; alleluia, alleluia! Comes to save us from despair.” “Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing, bringing news of sins forgiven; Jesus comes with words of gladness, leading souls redeemed to heaven.” With that blessed promise from Jesus, we can look at all of these signs, and, as troubling as they may be, we can endure them knowing that eternal good awaits us at the end. Consider what Luther preached to his congregation almost 500 years ago: “When the sky grows dark, you should say, ‘The trees are budding.’ And when the sea and waves roar, ‘The trees are blooming beautifully.’ Why? Because you are to be set free forever. The signs which will occur in sun, moon, sea, and the earth, the world will regard as threatening…But you…are to think of them as beautiful blossoms. You ought to rejoice, for the Kingdom of God is coming to you because you believe and are Baptized.”
Just as buds let us know that summer is near, and the death of winter is behind us, so will it be at the return of Jesus. When there is terror on every side, hatred and division all around, the blessed hope of life everlasting is what sees us through. Our minds made pure by the enduring Word of Jesus, we look to the skies, for we know that our redemption is drawing near. We know that it really isn’t the end, it’s the beginning! All things will be made new.
May God always stir us up and cause us to see the signs around us as the blessed hope and promise that Christ is coming soon. No matter how miserable the signs may be, remember: The Kingdom yours remaineth. Your Redemption draws near to take you to be with Him in heaven forever. You are Baptized into Christ. He feeds you with His Body and His Blood. He holds you in His hand, even when life is worse than you can imagine, when your world is shaken to its core. Jesus is always there and promises to hold you and see you through the darkness until you stand the light of the Sun that never sets.
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.