Advent is a word that means coming. The four-week season of Advent comes before Christmas and remembers both when God came to earth in Jesus and how the risen Jesus will one day come back to earth for the final judgment upon humankind and to fully, perfectly establish His eternal kingdom. Below is an Advent sermon by the German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyed in the waning days of World War Two for his opposition to Nazism.
Bonhoeffer warns Christians not to be too self-satisfied about meeting Jesus face to face, to not be so caught up in the world's notions of love, which are more about personal fulfillment, license, and indulgence than self-denying, self-giving, self-surrendering love, and to realize that we too are sinners who, apart from God's grace, have no right to stand before the throne of the most high God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ.
It's only by going through conscience-stricken fear over standing in Christ's presence that we really can appropriate the love of God that allows us by grace, to stand, heads held high, before the Almighty.
Those who have been saved by God's grace through faith in Christ will experience both fear and assurance in the presence of the Almighty.
It's the self-assured, self-centered masses who either deny that Christ will return or who flippantly believe that they have nothing to fear, who approach the prospect of Christ coming to them with breezy, thoughtless confidence.
Those who are utterly fearless about the coming of Jesus know nothing about Jesus or have never wrestled with the reality of their own sins and limitations.
I love these lines from the Bonhoeffer sermon:
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.Here, now is the entire Bonhoeffer sermon.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.
The Coming of Jesus into Our Midst
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20[Thanks to E.J.Swensson for linking to this wonderful sermon over on Twitter.]
When early Christianity spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus, they thought of a great day of judgment. Even though this thought may appear to us to be so unlike Christmas, it is original Christianity and to be taken extremely seriously. When we hear Jesus knocking, our conscience first of all pricks us: Are we rightly prepared? Is our heart capable of becoming God's dwelling place? Thus Advent becomes a time of self-examination. "Put the desires of your heart in order, O human beings!" (Valentin Thilo), as the old song sings:Our whole life is an Advent, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people will be brothers and sisters.It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the earth. That is why we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering, with the marks of the cross on Golgotha.
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be - in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God's goodness will once again draw near. We think of all of God's goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgment and grace: "Behold I stand at the door! Open wide the gates!" (Ps. 24:7)?
One day, at the last judgment, he will separate the sheep and the goats and will say to those on his right: "Come, you blessed. I was hungry and you fed me." (Matt. 25:34). To the astonished question of when and where, he answered: "What you did to the least of these, you have done to me?" (Matt. 25:40).
With that we are faced with the shocking reality: Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?
Christ is still knocking. It is not yet Christmas. But it is also not the great final Advent, the final coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate goes the longing for the final Advent, where it says: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5).
Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent - that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: "On earth peace to those on whom God's favor rests." Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. "I stand at the door." We however call to him: "Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!" Amen.
[Pictures above: Top: an Advent wreath featuring the four blue candles representing each Sunday in Advent. The picture comes from the catalog of ChristianSupply.com; Bottom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.]