Past, present, and future converge in Advent. The historical coming of the Lord Jesus in the flesh, born of Mary to suffer and die for the world’s redemption, is indicated by having the Palm Sunday account read on the First Sunday in Advent. All of the church year revolves around the cross. The movement of the church year is either toward Calvary or else it flows out of Calvary coming to consummation in the return of the crucified Lord to judge the living and the dead. Advent proclaims that the Lord who rode into Jerusalem seated on a donkey with the humility of a “beggar king” , to use Luther’s words, will come clothed in the splendor of His divine majesty to reign in glory everlasting.
Advent draws us back to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, even as it pulls us toward what Luther called, “the happy last day” (WA 49:731.5). With Revelation 22:20, “Indeed, come, Lord Jesus,” Luther prays the Day of Judgment will come. It is the extremus dies laeta, “We… wait for the arrival of the Lord and say, ‘Come, Dear Lord Jesus.’” The Day of Judgment we await is, therefore, not to be understood in a neutral sense, but in a personal sense. It is the Lord who is expected. We do not wait for an anonymous Last Thing, but for the Last One whom we know by faith already. The anticipation of the beloved Day of Judgment is the anticipation of the “beloved Lord.” The same Lord who came as our Brother and Savior will come again as our Judge.
An old collect of the church, appointed for use on Christmas Eve, forges the link between the two advents of Jesus: “O God, You make us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of Your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Grant that as we joyfully receive Him as our Redeemer, we may with sure confidence behold Him when He comes as our Judge; through the same….” Only those who receive Him now, by faith, are ready to receive Him on the Last Day.
John the Baptist figures prominently in Advent’s present tense for he is the voice of the preached Word, calling all to repentance and faith. Luther called John the Baptist, “…an image, and a type, and also a pioneer, the first of all preachers of the Gospel,” because he points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthais Grunwald, pictures John the Baptist standing by the cross with an open Bible in one hand and pointing a larger than life finger toward the crucified Christ with the other. John is the finger that points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John does his work by calling us to repent of our sins and to faith in Jesus Christ who has answered for our sin by His death on the cross. So, Luther says in one of his Advent sermons, "Let us look to the mouth and finger of John with which he bears witness and points, so that we do not close our eyes and lose our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; for to the present day John still very diligently, faithfully, and richly points and directs us here in order that we might be saved."
With one foot clearly planted in the Old Testament and the other squarely standing in the terrain of the New Testament, John the Baptist is the prophetic voice brought to a single point and focused solely on Christ Jesus. As Martin Franzmann put it, “We who give ear to the voice of John, we who follow the pointing finger of John, the great Advent preacher, can never grow casual about Him and His mercy. Nor can we who have heard the Baptist’s Advent cry ever think of repentance as a placid, pious exercise, a sort of routine religious daily dozen. It is the death of the old man and the creation of the new man as God’s own.” The preaching of John the Baptist scrubs us clean of the pretentious spirituality we would use to defend ourselves against God’s righteousness. His wilderness sermons are a homiletical laxative to cleanse us from being constipated with our putrid presumptions about the righteousness of our good intentions and how they will suffice before the living God. His preaching levels mountains of pride and makes a straight way to the crib of Bethlehem and the cross of Golgotha.
Such preaching of the light displaces the lie, but it also lands John in a dungeon and eventuates in his execution to satisfy the whim of Herodias’s daughter. Before his decapitation, John’s disciples are dispatched to Jesus with a question, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another? (Luke 7:18; from the Holy Gospel for Advent III: Series C). This pericope and its parallel in Matthew 11:2-11 (from the Holy Gospel for Advent III in the historic lectionary) has raised debate. Was John himself doubting the One whom he had proclaimed? Or was he asking this question for the sake of his disciples?
John's whole life was given to the service of Jesus. He knew himself to be the one sent to prepare the Lord's way, to make ready a highway in the wilderness for our God. John's very existence was spent on preaching repentance. His whole being was poured into the proclamation of the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness, the arrival of the Lamb of God promised by the prophets. John knew he was not the Messiah, but the forerunner, sent to announce His coming and prepare His way. But now John is locked away in jail. He will soon die. Where is the Messiah now? If God's Christ has come to give release to prisoners, why is John still behind bars? "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" Jesus sent word back to John. He says to John's disciples, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the Gospel preached to them" (Luke 7:22-23). Jesus directs John to His works. He does what the Old Testament promised Messiah would do. Jesus' works confirm He is the Messiah sent from the Father. Then, Jesus adds a gentle rebuke: "And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Luke 7:23). There is an offensive side to Advent. It shows us a Savior who comes in such lowliness and weakness as to suffer His preacher’s imprisonment, persecution, and entrance into His kingdom, not by sidestepping death and the grave, but going through it.
The Fourth Sunday in Advent brings us to the threshold of Christmas with the Annunciation and the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-55). Mary received quite a Christmas greeting from the Most High God: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.” That Christmas salutation was delivered by the high angel of God, Gabriel; the same angel who years before visited Daniel and spoke to him of the end of all things and the coming of God’s kingdom of glory. Now Gabriel comes to a young girl in Galilee of Nazareth with news as surprising as it is shocking. No wonder Mary was troubled at this encounter and confused as to the meaning of this celestial message. There is no reason for Mary to be afraid, for the work that God is about to perform in her is a work of His gracious favor. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
God selected Mary to be the mother of His Son. She is blessed among all women, for she is given the unique privilege of carrying the Son of God in her womb. She is the instrument that God singles out to clothe His Eternal Word in the flesh. In the face of this awesome miracle, the Angel Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid.” Then, the Angel goes on to unwrap this gift God is giving to Mary and through her to the whole world. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His kingdom there will be no end.” Your see how the script for this Christmas greeting from heaven is the Old Testament itself. In these few words, the Angel summarizes the message of the Old Testament. It is a message that goes back to the promise which God made to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and echoes down through the halls of history in the testimony of the patriarchs and prophets. It is all coming to fulfillment as the angel speaks these words into the ear of the Virgin Mary.
This son, conceived within the intimacy of Mary’s womb, is the God whom the universe cannot contain. True God, yet true Man, He is given the name “Jesus”. This name pledges to us the Lord’s salvation. It is the only name give under heaven by which we are saved from our sin, rescued from the grave, and redeemed from hell. To this embryo in Mary’s body belongs the throne of David and the kingship which will have no end. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is very God of very God, begotten not made; as we confess in the Creed. His life did not begin in Mary’s womb, nor did it end in the borrowed tomb. This little baby who is sheltered in Mary’s flesh is the one eternal God.
We mark beginnings and endings. We live between birth and death. We cannot comprehend eternity. The Son born to Mary comes to us in the flesh. His flesh will suffer and die in our place to make finite creatures of time, children of eternity. This little mass of flesh and blood growing and developing in Mary’s body is the God who comes to save us and make us citizens of His unending Kingdom.
Mary’s response to the Angel’s Christmas greeting is marked by its simplicity: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Mary’s question is born of faith, not skepticism. She knows, as we know, that it takes a man and a woman to produce a child. Unlike the scoffers of her day and ours, Mary’s question is not fueled by unbelief. Rather, Mary’s question is simple and child-like. She is humbly saying, “How is God going to do this?” And she gets an answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary believes!
Martin Luther said there are three miracles in this text from Holy Writ. The first is how a virgin should conceive without the aid of a male. For the God who created heaven and earth this is but a trifle, says Luther, a miracle that God could pull off with a twitch of His little finger. The second miracle is a little greater. God will take on flesh and blood and house Himself within our frame. But Luther says the third miracle is the greatest. Mary believed the Word of the Lord delivered to her by His angel. Luther goes on to say, “Had Mary not believed, she could not have conceived.”
Mary believes! She says, “Let it be to me according to your word.” This is the Amen of faith. Faith does not dictate to God how He must act. Faith does not live by what can be seen with the eyes, but by a Word spoken into the ears. Faith says, “Let it be to me according to your word.” The proclamation of the Lord’s three advents moves preaching from the cry, “Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear” (357:1 LSB), to the glad call, “Let the earth now praise the Lord, who has truly kept His word and at last to us did send Christ, the sinner’s help and friend” (352:1 LSB). The movement from Advent to Christmas is the movement from promise to fulfillment.