This sermon is the second part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden!” So did the prophet Zechariah proclaim the manner in which our Lord and King would come to claim his throne at his first coming in our readings from last Wednesday. But our Gospel from the 21st Chapter of Luke today treats a different coming than Christ’s first triumphal entry into his capital city on that fateful Sunday nearly 2000 years ago—Christ’s coming to reclaim Creation in-full on the Last Day.
This second coming will be very different than his first coming as king. There will be no crowds, no strewn garments, no donkey, no riding in humility. Jesus tells the disciples that the second advent will be one characterized by signs and phenomena throughout creation. There will be signs in the heavens— the sun, the moon, and the stars will be affected, and while Luke does not report what will happen to them, the Apostle Matthew writes that the sun and moon will darken and the stars will fall from heaven (Matt 24:29). These will be signs that the last day is nigh, and that the King of Creation’s return is imminent. All people will be frozen in terror; the fear and terror of hell will consume some of them, and the powers of the heavens, either the heavenly hosts themselves or the powers by which God holds all parts of the universe together, will be shaken. And when this all happens, the King will return to finally toss death out of his kingdom. All people will see on this last day “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). And this second coming will be one where his kingship is undeniable. No longer is our king robed in the simple garb of a carpenter, but in the flowing cloth-of-gold of a king, a victorious monarch returning to his kingdom to take his place upon his throne.
And when these things happen, our Lord reminds the disciples— and us— to “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption, our Redeemer himself is coming when these things happen! And at his coming, all sin, death, and hell will be destroyed forever.
But how can one look up when the world is gripped by terror? How can one look to the coming of our king “[i]f the whole world is terrified at that day, and hangs its head and looks down out of terror and fear” with raised heads in joyous expectation (Luther 1, 47)? Luther says in his notes on this reading in the Church Postil:
…All of this is spoken only to Christians who are truly Christians, and not to heathen…true Christians suffocate in great temptations and persecutions from sin and all kinds of evil, so that this life becomes bitter and loathsome to them. Therefore, they wait and long and pray for redemption from sin and all evil— as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come” and “Deliver us from evil”. If we are true Christians, we will earnestly and heartily pray this prayer. But if we do not pray heartily and earnestly, we are not yet true Christians.
If we pray correctly, then we must regard these signs, however terrible they are, with joy and longing, as Christ exhorts: “When these things begin to take place, look up.” He does not say, “Be filled with fear or hang your heads,” for what we have prayed for so earnestly is coming. If we earnestly want to be freed from sin, death, and hell, we must desire and love this coming….Therefore, we should be careful not to hate or dread that day. Such dread is a bad sign and belongsto the damned, whose hard minds and hardened hearts must be terrified and broken if they are to improve. But to believers that day will be comforting and sweet.1
This day will be a day of joy for Christians who have faith in Christ, but it will be terrible and terrifying for those who have put their trust in other gods or in themselves. They will be shaken in their sin. They will not see Christ as their king, but their conqueror. They will not rush forward to meet him with joy when he comes, but rather cower in terror, because they preferred to ignore or reject the signs and testimonies of their coming king in favor of others. As with the Pharisees and Sadducees who chose to look for a different king than he who came humbly into Jerusalem, those who dread the signs of Christ’s coming reject his promises and will be subject to his judgment. Rather than fleeing their sin and seeking to overcome it, they nurtured it, and so when the last day comes and Christ returns in his glory, instead of joy at seeing their coming savior, they will feel fear and dread because they will lose that sin that they nurtured. They will not see Christ as their loving Lord come to redeem them, but instead as someone come to upend their lives and destroy them, to take from them rather than to give them everything. They do not wish to repent, but rather desire that such a day never come. Their faith is not in Christ as king and redeemer, but in the world, and because of that, they will not “have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place.”
But what about the Christian who still feels fear at the thought of that day? What of the Christian who, in the struggle with his or her sin feels some fear at the thought of the great and terrible events surrounding the coming of Christ in his glory? Perhaps you feel this fear, this pang at the thought of his coming. There is good news in the midst of Christ’s warning to the disciples that we can put our trust in. He tells them, and us, that the One who comes in glory is their “redemption,” not their condemnation. Luther explains this beautifully:
Without a doubt, He has spoken this comforting word also for the fainthearted who, though they are godly and prepared for the Last Day, are yet filled with great anxiety and [thus] hinder their desire for this coming…therefore, He calls it their redemption. For at the end of the world, when sin will so terribly hold sway, and along with sin the second part (the punishment for sin with pestilence, war, and famine) will also hold sway, it is necessary that believers have a strong confidence and comfort against both afflictions: sin and its punishment. Therefore, He uses the sweet word “redemption,” which all hearts gladly hear. What is redemption? Who would not gladly be redeemed? Who would desire to remain in such a desert, both of sin and of punishment? Who would not wish an end to such misery, such danger for souls, such ruin for man— especially when Christ so sweetly allures, invites, and comforts us?2
This is a promise in which the terrified conscience can take comfort and refuge. Christ will not abandon those who hear the words in this promise and trust them, even if their sinful flesh quivers at the thought. From him flows the faith to believe that this terrible and glorious king, our God in the flesh returning from the heavens, is our redeemer and savior, the one who will end all sorrow and fear and restore us to life and joy. Faith in Jesus, faith that he is who he says he is, our redeemer and savior, makes it possible for all who trust in him, however weak our faith may be. Even a little faith, a faith that cries “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” when praying that God’s “kingdom come” and his “will be done” puts a person on the right track to receive Christ with joy when he comes again in his glory. The faith he gives to us when he comes to us (and not we to him!) allows us to indeed look up when the heads of all around us are cast down in terror and fear, and to joyfully look to his coming and receive him in the air when he comes. Trusting in his promises, we can see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory, straighten up and raise our heads, and know that our redemption is drawing near! Amen.
1 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 47-48.
2 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, 2018: 1:49.