December 7 2014, Second Sunday in Advent
Behold the Son of Man
Isaiah 55, Psalm 25, Romans 15:4-13, St. Luke 21:25-33
Richard Wurmbrand was a Christian pastor of Jewish descent when the Soviet Union annexed his homeland of Romania. Speaking out against atheistic communism earned him 14 years in prison and torture that induced unspeakable pain.
He later immigrated to the United States and founded Voice of the Martyrs and wrote a number of books, the best-known of which is “Tortured for Christ.” He bore the scars of torture for the rest of his life.
He related having the soles of his feet beaten until the flesh was torn off, then the next day beaten again to the bone. The author could summon no words to describe that pain.
During his three years in solitary confinement in an underground room with no light, he clung to sanity by composing sermons in his mind. His memory was so remarkable that after his release he reproduced some 350 of those sermons.
Wurmbrand’s experiences equipped him to present us with a picture of a world without judgment. He wrote:
“The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man.
“The communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no Hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’
“I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners.”
As I consider his testimony I reflect on the interplay of judgment and hope. The atheists who tortured him, unrestrained by fear of judgment, had no reason for hope. If there is no Being outside the created order in whom ultimate judgment resides, neither is there One who offers hope.
And in a godless culture in which there is no hope of a reward for good, neither is there any curb on evil. The many today who cling to the Christian’s hope while denying judgment on evil – as God defines it – would do well to think on both Wurmbrand’s experiences and his musings on them.
By definition, a Christian is an optimist. Whatever trials he may endure in this life, he lives within the warm glow of the certain hope of his Lord’s return.
The ancient Stoics taught that history moves in circles. About every 3,000 years a great conflagration consumes the created order and, from the ashes, the next cycle begins. For the Christian, by contrast, history has an end, from which will issue the one new beginning, Christ’s eternal reign on earth.
Our Lord’s return will inaugurate that everlasting kingdom, and our gospel text for today directs us, as we anticipate our celebration of His first coming, to invest some thought in His second coming:
“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Luke resorts to Old Testament-style prophetic language, apocalyptic language, to sketch the scene:
"And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.”
Recall God’s appearance to Israel at Mount Sinai:
“Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.
“And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Exodus 19:16-18).
At Christ’s return the scene will be more terrible still. He will bring the final judgment, the apocalypse. He will purge the last vestiges of sin from His creation. Here lies the difficulty with the cuddly, one-dimensional figure of Jesus meek and mild so fashionable in our day.
He is an idol incapable of judgment. Most times when I walk out to my car I see one parked nearby wearing a bumper sticker that reads, “Co-exist.” As a matter of fact, I think Durango may lead the nation, on a per-capita basis, in “Co-exist” signs.
How am I to take it? I hear no one arguing against co-existence. But if it means forsaking principle for the sake of getting along, I wonder: Who then will speak for the unborn babies? If it means making everyone’s values equally valid, who will insist God’s word is true?
Oh, but, Jesus meek and mild will return to love us. And so He will, but only after He has dispensed with those who have refused to love the One who loved them first.
But for the Christian, the appearance of the Son of Man of which Daniel prophesied means deliverance. As the Father rode the clouds in the Old Testament, the Son of Man – a human figure with divine powers – will arrive in such glory . . . and the chaos and destruction will be stopped.
He will deliver His people from the world, the flesh and the devil, from temptation, sorrow, sickness and death. In that moment, just as any hope the reprobate retain flickers out forever, the hope of the redeemed will be fulfilled.
The firstfruits have been gathered. The yeast will have leavened the dough throughout; the time of harvest will have come.
Yes, this second coming will be a far cry from the first. The Lord who submitted to the judgment of men will return to judge all men. He who was judged will remind those who crucified Him:
“These things you have done, and I kept silent; you thought that I was altogether like you; but I will rebuke you, and set them in order before your eyes” (Psalm 50:21).
Two thousand years ago the kingdom of God broke out in history according to the promises of the prophets of old. The Lord called His people to patience. At His return He will call us to glory.
At the first He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger; at the second he will wear a garment of light
At the first He endured the cross, despising the shame; at the second He will appear in triumph, escorted by an army of angels.
At the first He inaugurated His dispensation of loving persuasion to win the redeemed to Him; at the second He will separate the sheep from the goats.
At the first we said, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”; at the second we shall venture forth with the angels and cry out again in adulation, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
This is the end of history, the beginning of the new creation.
We must remain vigilant lest we be caught unawares. When the fig tree buds, summer draws nigh. By the same token:
"So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Our Lord commands us to keep watch and so we must . . . but look how many have misread the signs. Scarcely had the Christ ascended when men put down their spades and unhitched their oxen. They would spend their days and their nights scanning the skies for signs of His return.
The apostle Paul was moved to remonstrate with the Thessalonians:
“For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).
In the fourth century the church father Ephrem the Syrian reminded his flock that the Lord had said:
"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36).
Ephrem added, “If he had revealed the time of his coming, his coming would have lost its savor . . . He promised that he would come but did not say when he would come, and so all generations and ages await him eagerly.”
Such signs as those to which the Lord referred, the sage said, “have come and gone with a multiplicity of change; more than that, they are still present.” All believers wish the Lord to return in their own day and in their eagerness they misread the signs.
Right down to our generation men cast an eye to the heavens and make predictions. I myself have interpreted shifting cloud patterns and determined that He will return on a certain remote summit in the Grand Tetons at sunrise on my birthday one week from tomorrow.
I will distribute a map and I instruct each of you to be there. You may refer to me henceforth as the prophet Edward.
In fact, keeping the vigil means to follow the example of the five wise virgins who arrived at the wedding feast with sufficient oil to keep their lamps glowing until the bridegroom should appear, whenever that might be.
The five foolish virgins did not bring enough oil; when they were away searching for more the bridegroom arrived, and entered, and the door was shut, and they were closed out of the feast.
Like the Thessalonians, beloved, we can become fixated on the signs of the times and set our tools aside to rust in the fields. Our day is one of great tumult. There are cataclysmic upheavals in nature, nuclear accidents, high crimes in high places, wars and rumors of war. Such events or others like them have marked other eras as well.
We run the risk of both shirking our duty and misreading the signs. Our lot is to keep the faith and persevere in the work our Lord has given us. If we do those things we will not be left behind.
Those who fixate on the signs, moreover, dally with the danger of forgetting their hope. Because Christ will return in judgment, in the end evil will collapse in defeat and the Lord and His army will emerge victorious. That is our certain hope and it should guide us moment-by-moment even as we navigate between the rocky shoals of this life.
If we take the long view we see that despite war and famine and plague the gospel always advances. In the Middle Ages the plague gnawed a great swath through Europe, leaving thousands dead.
And in its wake came missionaries offering to the survivors hope in the one true God who would not wand away the perils of this sin-stained world but who promised deliverance into the glory of His presence beyond history, into the world to come.
He makes this offer to those with faith, which is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
What if He should appear today? Are you certain of His truth? Your Lord is certain:
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”
Don’t play games with your Lord. He might arrive this day and demand a reckoning: Have you loved God? Have you loved your neighbor?
Christ will return to fulfill your fond hope, to wipe every tear away. But first must come His judgment. If His patience with sin were infinite, as some will it to be, God would be a fraud. His commandments would be as empty as a politician’s promise.
If evil fetched the same divine response as good the ethical system the Scriptures lay out would be a sham. God condemns His creatures who call evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). Will He Himself practice what He despises?
He will forgive every sin in His faithful ones but He will not excuse a single sin.
This matter of our Lord’s second coming is an intensely personal one, whether He appears while you and I still tread this earth or not. When the world around us is darkest, we are nearest the Light. When all hell breaks loose, heaven is close at hand.
Christ comes to a world, a nation, a person when no hope for salvation remains . . . when nothing less than divine intervention will do. In that moment when we confess we cannot save ourselves we encounter the One with saving power.
The world, the flesh and the devil rage against you . . . and Fox News will not arm you for the battle. But Jesus Christ will. Heaven and earth will pass away but His word will abide. Trust the One who is coming to deliver you. Your life depends on it. Amen.