An Advent Sermon from Werner Elert translated Adam Koontz
“There shall be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.”—says the Lord. So far it hasn’t happened yet. Certainly at times a new show takes place in the night sky. There a comet ascends and after a time disappears again. A few months ago a new star in the sky was discovered, but after a few days, it became small again. Or an unusually long drought or long wet period prevails. Or once a great storm on the sea—“the sea and the waves will roar”—yes, all this occurs also in our times. But it has often been so before. Comets have often stood in the sky. And all manner of horrors at sea have disturbed men. In all these and the like, our time does not distinguish itself from other times.
Certainly one thing does apply to our day in a special way: “On Earth people will be afraid, and they shall say”… “And men will die off for fear and for awaiting the things that shall come on the Earth.” There is a monstrous restlessness among our people and seemingly also among all other peoples. One lives in the anticipation of great things. One hopes and fears. One waits.
“But when this begins to happen, look up and lift up your heads, for your salvation draws near.” When what begins? The sky’s activities? They have not changed, so long as the thoughts of men stretch into the past. Therefore we come to the other option: when the angst and restlessness of men and the restless anticipating becomes ever greater—then lift up your eyes. Lift your heads, for your salvation draws near.
And so the appeal is addressed also to us today. Lift up your heads, for your salvation draws near. From this and the following words of the Lord comes an essentially different picture of the imminent end-times from that which most Christians among us maintain. Usually the matter is put forth as if horrible things are the most certain mark of the future coming of Christ, as though one must await a dreadful upheaval in all earthly conditions, indeed in all the conditions of the stars, the heavenly bodies among them, and finally, as though the best preparation were to hide oneself warily at one’s own hearth. Though all these things and opinions have a certain truth to them—this speech of the Lord shows that the matter also has another aspect. From this announcement comes much that is in contrast to this widespread opinion:
- The signs of the future coming of Christ shall be not only terrible but also full of hope.
- One should fix his eyes not on the ephemeral, but on the everlasting.
- One should be not worried, but watchful and worthy.
One should certainly not overlook that in the proclamations of Jesus the description of events in the sky is by no means the only thing. It says, “He told them a parable, ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees—as soon as they leaf out, you look for yourselves and know the summer is near. So also, when you see all this going on, know that the kingdom of God is near.’” Had the Lord thought only of downfall and destruction at his future coming, he would have likened the time of preparation not to the spring but to the autumn. That he likened it to the spring, bright budding and the greening of the trees, so we may definitely expect that the end of time will also mean a bright budding and greening in his kingdom.
Is such budding and blooming something to be perceived in the present? Before the war, we received the reports of our missionaries every year. Who among us read them? Who was at all interested in them?—Yes, there was something of blooming in the kingdom of God to notice, when the heathens pressed in to hear the Gospel. How happy we would be today, if that happened again! But if also in this time some consoling news arrives, in general a monstrous reversal has come. It is autumn there instead of spring, and the young congregations of Christians there are far more like not to a greening fig tree, but to a fading one. The leaves for the most part are fallen. So here the Lord’s condition is not fulfilled.
And in Christianity here at home?—Some believed strongly during the rush to arms in the first months of the war that a rush to arms brought with it the chance to behold a greening fig tree in the area of prayer meetings for the war, of prayer, and of a penitent attitude. Granting there may have been something true in that—today we are in any case farther from a conversion of the entire people than ever. Here also no blooming, but a falling of barren leaves—for that reason we will not hold the horrible things of the present for more important than they actually are. Therefore they are not decisive, says the fact that the trees still are not green.
Not the ephemeral, but the everlasting.
When many Christians busy themselves much more readily with the outward signs of the coming of Jesus than with the inward signs, it is presumably because above all the ephemeral is more important to them than the everlasting. You remember that the last Sundays of the church year preach the everlasting in ever-new phrases. And out of the prayers of those weeks rings out the tone: “Prepare our minds for the end.” But do not think, fellow-Christians, that that is a special cemetery-mood or autumn-mood that is again finished once happy Advent promises hopes and joys again. The season of Advent also in its way directs its vision to the everlasting.
Proof v. 33, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” That is: away with all thoughts of the temporal, but also with all thoughts and musings on the downfall of the world, etc. It all passes away—what does it matter to you? Think still more on that which will be saved, yes, what then will still be, and then always will rule all life. Those are his words.
The Lord’s words—they are not dead and gone like other people’s words. Some among us can only speak smartly; they give first-rate advice in all political and business affairs. But do not think, fellow-Christians, that such has eternal worth…. That Christ’s words have eternal worth, that is because he himself is an eternal being.
And let us apply these predictions of the Lord to some of his words. “Come unto me…” “The Son of Man—that he should give his life as a ransom for many.” “I am the Good Shepherd—I give them eternal life, and they shall nevermore perish.” These words have validity also in the eternal world, and to that let us turn our attention.
Not anxious, but watchful and worthy.
From this follows—and that is for us the most important thing—how we should conduct ourselves in these hard times (which should however, as the season of Advent, lose all that is comfortless). First: not anxious. If we were to be anxious, fearful, then certainly it would be never be set there: “Lift up your heads.” So not a sunken head, but an uplifted one. Not fearful, but inwardly free and full of trust in a very strong Helper.
But beside that: watchful, v. 34-36. The day comes like a trap. Not as if someone has an interest in bringing us to a fall. The Lord, who brings it, wants rather the opposite. But he wants to preclude all hypocrisy. Were the preparation of the fulfillment such that no man could anymore doubt it, then the temptation would lie near that many would repent at last out of so-called smartness. What do you think, fellow-Christian? Oh, how many good Christians lean upon the possibility to still repent before the gate is closed and to still be able to come home. It doesn’t work that way with the Lord. The end comes unexpectedly like a trap.
So watchful. And further “worthy.” Oh, of worth among us we cannot speak, still less of worthiness. Namely then, not when this is connected to it: “Worthy to stand before the Son of Man.” Therefore there is only one way out. That is the begging outstretch of the hand to him: Lord, take me as I am. Forgive me my sins, and save me. I cannot. That strikes some among us not as worthy but as unworthy. That we still thereafter must humble ourselves is because the human measure of worthiness is generally invested in hypocrisy. Not with the Lord. And above this: it is not about humility before men but about humility before God. …