A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2023 at Holy Communion
Luke 21:25–33, 2 Peter 3:4–10
“You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
As we were reading today’s Gospel passage about the return of Christ at the Tuesday Bible study, with her typical spunk, Elizabeth asked a couple of great questions—I paraphrase: “Are we supposed to think that Jesus is really coming back soon? It’s been 2000 years and it hasn’t happened yet! And why are talking about the end of the world at all? Isn’t this season all about preparing for Christmas?”
We can thank Elizabeth for saying what we were all thinking. So let’s start with her second question: why are we talking about the end of the world at all?
The word “Advent” means “coming.” Naturally, we think that the “coming of Christ” in Advent refers to Christmas, but this is only part of the story. St Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Isaiah, says that there are three comings of Christ: his coming “in the flesh” at Christmas in the past, his coming “into our minds” as we live by faith in the present, and his final coming “for judgement” at the end of times in the future.
Advent is about all three comings of Christ, because all three of them are related by the theme of “fulfillment.” Jesus comes to earth to fulfill the purposes of God: to make a way for us out of sin and death; to grow in us the fruits of faith, hope, and love; and ultimately to right all wrongs, judge all sins, and to establish a kingdom of peace. And in every way, that plan for the world is fulfilled, it comes to its completion, in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus comes to us in the present, when we reach out and touch him by faith, we are making contact with the one whose coming signifies the end of the world. The New Testament often refers to the present time as “these last days” (Hebrews 1:2), because Jesus coming to earth is the beginning of the end of history. In Christ, God has already started to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5), beginning with his work in our hearts, as we grow in faith, hope, and love.
But what about Elizabeth’s other question: Is Jesus really coming back “soon?” He’s had two thousand years to do it! Fortunately for us, this is a question which gets a direct answer in scripture. Responding to people ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:4), St Peter writes in his second letter:
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Peter 3:8–10).
Simply, the Lord does not count time like we do. And why should he? As God says in our Old Testament Lesson, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). As St Peter explains, God is in no rush to end history, because he wants to give us our present moment as a gift, a time in which to find repentance and turn to the Lord. But when the day comes, just as Jesus himself taught in the passage in Matthew which tells the same story as today’s Gospel, the end will come suddenly, like a thief who breaks into a house in the middle of the night. Jesus says, “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44).
So Jesus coming back “soon” really has nothing to do with when it happens. In fact, Jesus tells us, just in case we were tempted to try predicting it exactly—and many have—that no one knows when the end will come (Matthew 24:36). But Jesus’ coming is certain because his promise to return is reliable, and when it comes it will happen suddenly. It is foolish to treat final judgement as if it were a long way off. And this doesn’t have to do only with Jesus’ return, but the end of life as well: we never know when our day is coming, and we must be ready.
But what does it mean to be “ready” to meet Jesus? I would not be at all surprised if our instinct is to say, “You have to accept Jesus into your heart” before the end. And that’s very good. Accepting Jesus into my heart is the best decision I’ve ever made. But I’ve learned since then that readiness for meeting Jesus doesn’t end with what we might call “getting saved.“ In fact, our Epistle reading offers us a great start on a fuller picture of what it means to be prepared for Christ’s coming.
St Paul says that our confidence in God’s word gives us hope to endure the difficulties of life as we wait to be reunited with Christ. But that hope is not something we just hold onto in our hearts, reminding ourselves over and over that we “got saved” and so we have hope. Instead, hope blossoms into confidence to live open-heartedly with the other members of the church, “in harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5). And this harmony also blossoms into worship, as “with one voice” we “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v 6).
The way to be prepared for Christ’s coming is to participate in the life of the church, encouraging one another, deepening the bonds of friendship, seeking peace with one another when there is conflict, and gathering to worship with openness to the joy of being in God’s presence.
The same Jesus Christ who will come again is among us now. Heaven and earth will pass away, but Jesus’ words, which are already coming to life among us, will never pass away.