‘Welcome to the season of Advent.’ The word Advent literally means ‘coming’ or ‘approaching.’ It’s a word that the Greeks and Romans used long before the Christians stole it and made it their own. When the Greeks and Romans were told that the Emperor, who was a deity, was coming to their city, a time of ‘preparation’ began which lasted until the Emperor finally arrived.
When our Emperor, the Lord, Jesus Christ announced that He would be returning to this world on the Last Day, the Christian Church began a time of ‘preparation’ for His coming. The Season of Advent is still on the Church’s calendar because the Last Day has not yet come. And until it does, Christians will always be ‘preparing’ for the visitation of our Lord.
And so, the season of Advent really has two themes running through it. One is the necessary reminder that our Lord is ‘approaching.’ He is ‘coming’ to visit us. And the purpose of His visitation on the Last Day will be to “judge between the living and the dead.” That is, between the believer and the unbeliever, the sinner and the saint, the righteous from the unrighteous – and to separate the two, one from the other as far as the east is from the west – or more accurately – as far as heaven is from hell.
For now, all of this is mixed and mingled together in a confused mess. Even we, who profess and confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” do so with certain doubts and hesitations and uncertainties and fears. And as much as we want to follow Jesus and be a good Christian, we do the evil that we hate and the good that we will to do we can be so easily talked out of doing.
So, Jesus is coming again to unmingle the truth from the lie and make things perfectly clear. He is coming to untangle this messy world and our messy lives and make us ‘pure’ and ‘holy’ and His whole creation ‘pure’ and ‘holy,’ as only He can. He is coming to separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the weeds and the good fish from the bad – which we dare not picture as ‘us vs. them’ but as all mixed up and mingled together in me right now.
And the unbeliever and sinner in each of us says, “I hope He doesn’t come anytime soon.” And the believer and saint in each of us says, “don’t delay. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Which leads us right into the second stream that runs through this time of ‘Advent.’ For the Christian Church, this season of Advent is a time for ‘preparation.’ We are to be properly prepared for our Lord’s coming to this world BOTH for His ‘arrival’ at Christmas and on the Last Day. Weeks one and two of Advent direct our focus to His coming on the Last Day. Weeks three and four of Advent direct our focus to His coming on Christmas Day.
Next Sunday we’ll hear John the Baptist preach his famous sermon that is all about ‘preparation’ for the coming of the Son of God. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…” (Luke 3:4)
The question that we want to explore together today then is this: How does the believer ‘prepare’ for the Lord’s coming on the Last Day? There are two ways to answer this question.
One is crazy and ridiculous and it involves listening to crazy and ridiculous people who concoct crazy and ridiculous schemes for how to properly prepare for the Lord’s coming on the Last Day – schemes which typically involve strategies for disentangling yourself from this world by escaping it, so that when our Lord comes, there’s nothing for Him to disentangle or separate in you. Rather than having Him find you all messed up, in the head and in the heart, the key is to get your head and heart ‘pure’ and ‘holy’ SO THAT He will set you on His right and say, “Blessed are you.”
These strategies typically involve selling your house and all your possessions and giving all the proceeds to the crazy and ridiculous preacher of these schemes. You need to leave your spouse and children and go into the wilderness, away from this world, and cleanse your soul SO THAT when He comes, He’ll find you pure and spotless and take you to heaven.
The other answer to this question, ‘how does the believer ‘prepare’ for the Lord’s coming on the Last Day, is to listen to the voice of the Church as it has been drawn directly from the Holy Scriptures over the course of 2,000 years. And nowhere is that voice of the Church, speaking through the inspired Word of God, more beneficial and practical for the right practice of preparing for the coming of our Lord than in the Liturgy of the Divine Service.
The Divine Service begins with a tried and true routine for ‘preparing’ our hearts and our minds for our Lord’s final Advent.
The preparation begins by making the sign of the cross over ourselves as we speak the Triune name that God gave to us when we were baptized. In the rite of Holy Baptism, the pastor made the sign of the cross, both upon your forehead and upon your heart, to mark you one redeemed by Christ the crucified.
The mark of the cross is like a brand on a sheep or a horse that identifies who we belong to. We’re marked on the forehead, which indicates that our minds belong to God. We’re marked on the heart, which indicates that our hearts belong to God.
In Holy Baptism, the only true God gives us His name, which is what a husband gives to his wife in Holy Matrimony, and we became the bride of Christ, who lays down His life for us and brings us home to His Father’s house to live with Him forever.
The ‘Invocation’ PREPARES us for our Lord’s coming, by reminding us WHO WE ARE, children of God and the Bride of His Son, AS WELL AS reminding God who we are – according to His Word and Promise.
But before we’re fully ‘prepared’ for Him to come to us and for us to meet Him, there’s something that has been weighing pretty heavy on our hearts and minds that we need to get off our chest before we can greet Him WIHTOUT FEAR.
We have sinned. We have sinned against Him, our Creator, our Redeemer and our Husband. We have not been faithful to Him. We have not loved Him as we should. We’ve loved ourselves way more than we have loved Him. And we have not shared His love with our neighbors as He entrusted us with His love to do.
As long as we’re carrying this guilt in our heart, we’re NEVER READY for His coming because the guilt and shame always wants us to hide from Him just like Adam and Eve did in the garden. As long as there are things that we don’t want Him to see in us, we don’t want Him to come to us.
And so the Liturgy gives us the words that say what need to be said, words that say it right – no ‘buts,’ no ‘excuses,’ no ‘shifting the blame.’ “I a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You, all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your punishment…”
So, rather than speaking FOR ourselves before our Lord so that when He comes He will treat us well, the Liturgy has us speak AGAINST OURSELVES. Because the Liturgy uses the Holy Scripture as it’s only guide for preparing for our Lord’s coming.
And the Holy Scriptures make it clear that when our Lord comes again in judgement, it’s not those who call themselves holy that He’s looking for. He’s looking for SINNERS WHO KNOW THEY ARE SINNERS, but who ALSO BELIEVE that He is gracious and merciful and loves to forgive all our sins.
It is NOT TO THOSE WHO HAVE PURIFIED THEMSELVES, but those who humble themselves, and from their knees, welcome Him who PURIFIES THEM with His ABSOLUTION. “I forgive you all of your sins.”
By this HOLY ABSOLUTION, our Lord comes to us and untangles and separates our sin from us and He puts our sin away from us as far as the east is from the west. “I will remember your sin no more.”
And now we can come out from behind all of those hiding places and stand before our Lord, upright and unashamed, ready to listen to Him speak to us in holy words by His Holy Spirit.
This is how the Christian Church observes a proper ADVENT. And you say, BUT this is what we do in every season, year after year. Which is true. And which means that every Sunday, all year long, we properly prepare for our Lord’s coming to us IN HIS WORD.
And when this practice of preparation for our Lord’s coming to us every week IN HIS WORD becomes habitual, then ever Sunday is like meeting our Lord on the Last Day. And the Last Day will be as easy and enjoyable as going to Church.
But as we know, our Lord does not ONLY come to us through His Word when we come to Church. He also comes to us through His body and blood. And this ADVENT of our Lord also requires its own PROPER PREPARATION.
The “Preface” to the Lord’s Supper is a strategically worked out formula for ‘preparing’ for the physical, bodily ‘arrival’ of our Lord.
The pastor gets the ball rolling by saying, “The Lord be with you.” And the congregation responds, “And with thy spirit.” In that brief exchange, we call upon God to send His Holy Spirit onto and into each other that we may each be properly prepared to do what each has been called to do – the pastor to properly administer the sacrament of the altar and the congregation to properly receive the body and blood of Christ our Lord for the forgiveness of their sins.
The pastor then says, “Lift up your hearts.” The ‘lifting up’ suggests motion in an upward direction, which means one of two things, I’ve never been sure which it is. It either means that we are all ascending into the presence of our Lord in heaven, OR, that our ascended Lord is descending to this very altar. But whichever it is, when we hear the call, “Lift up your hearts,” it’s time to ‘pay attention,’ ‘be alert.’ This is no time to for a wandering minds or distractions.
And when you reply, “We lift them up to the Lord,” literally what you’re saying is, ‘we’re ready.’ ‘We’ve got our eyes fixed on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.’ We’re ready to EITHER ascend to where He is OR for Him to descend to where we are. WE’RE PREAPRED FOR HIS COMING TO US.
And then, in the anticipation of faith that trusts that our Lord is coming to us FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF OR SINS and THE STRENTHENING OF OUR FAITH, the pastor says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord.”
And by this faith, the congregation replies, “it is meet and right so to do.”
And with that, we’re PREPARED TO WELCOME HIM who comes to us in the bread and the wine.
And AGAIN, you say, BUT this is what we do in every season, year after year, week after week. Which is true. And which means that every Sunday, all year long, we properly prepare for our Lord’s coming to us IN THE FLESH.
And when this practice of preparation for our Lord’s coming to us every week IN HIS FLESH becomes habitual, then every Sunday is like meeting our Lord on the Last Day. And when we meet our Lord on the Last Day, it’ll be just like going to the Lord’s Supper.
The Church, through the Liturgy of the Divine Service, guides and shapes us through our entire life in this world, so that we might be properly prepared for our Lord’s ADVENT – each and every time we gather for worship here, AND when we are all gathered together on the LAST DAY .