Karl Barth tells the story how on the Sunday after the sinking of the Titanic, in April of 1912, he preached an entire sermon on the tragedy and it was a titanic failure. Likewise, Barth recounts how when World War I broke out, the war dominated his sermons until a dear woman in the congregation reminded him, “We know enough about war, we need to hear something from the Scriptures.” It is a temptation in a crisis to let it take over the pulpit. I have heard of preachers whose sermons have been so focused on COVID-19 that the pandemic gets more pulpit space than Christ Jesus. Certainly, good preaching does not isolate hearers from the history being lived out in the world even as we speak. On the other hand, it is the calling of preachers to proclaim not current events but the Word of the Cross. Advent preaching is not preoccupied with the coming of a vaccine but the arrival of a Redeemer.

We find a worthy mentor and model in Hermann Sasse (1895-1976), especially his Advent preaching from the time of World War II. These sermons are timely. They are a “word in season” but they proclaim Christ Jesus as the Lord whose reign will not be shaken or overthrown by the tyranny of Hitler.

What might we learn from Sasse about preaching in this Advent season?

First, Sasse reminds us of the double-sided nature of Advent. On the one side, there is Jesus coming in humility as the baby born to Mary. The other side of Advent is the apocalyptic announcement that He will come in glory as the judge of the living and the dead.[1] In a sermon preached in 1940, Sasse acknowledged how in previous generations Advent was a quiet season to prepare for the coming of this lowly Lord. The first side of Advent invites us to sing:

Prepare my heart, Lord Jesus,
Turn not from me aside,
And help me to receive You
This blessed Adventtide.
From shall and manger low
Come now to dwell within me;
I’ll sing Your praises gladly
And forth Your glory show. (354:4 LSB)

The second side of Advent is more like a lament than a lullaby:

“O Thou, whose coming is with dread
To judge the living and the dead,
Preserve us from the ancient foe
While still we dwell on earth below” (351:5 LSB).

Advent is something of a liturgical speed bump that slows us down lest we rush to Christmas but forget that the baby born in Bethlehem will return with glory and power to judge the living and the dead.

Second, Advent reminds us we exist in two worlds or eons, as Sasse calls them. We are in this old age marked by sin and death and yet, at the same time, we are by faith citizens of a heavenly kingdom. Christians are not without sin. We are simul justus et peccator, at one and the same time both righteous and sinner. “Paul knows,” Sasse explains, “that we men belong to two eons, two worlds, the world of death, which we still live in, and the new world to which we have been rescued, but in which we do not yet live. He knows that through Baptism we are born again into a new life, but also that the old man is still living inside of us.”[2] For the Christian on this side of the Last Day, it is always Advent and our constant cry is, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20) Yet, even as we groan under the weight of this fallen world, we anticipate in hope the final coming of the Savior and the consummation of all things in Him. So, we sing:

O come, O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. (357:1 LSB)

For the Christian on this side of the Last Day, it is always Advent and our constant cry is, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Lament is bound up with the hope which does not disappoint. The lament of Advent is never without the promise of Advent.

Third, Christians have a different relationship to time then the world does. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes asserts there is nothing new under the sun. The world experiences the passing of time. Seasons change. One year follows another. The decades relentlessly roll-on. Generations rise-up and pass-away. Yet, there is the constancy of sin and death. The myths of progress through technology and the triumph of science have not brought in a new age of universal health and happiness, but unending peace and unlimited prosperity.

Christians live within this world of clocks and calendars but know time from the perspective of the eternal Lord who entered time when Caesar Augustus ruled in Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria to be crucified under Pontus Pilate. Death could not hold Him. Raised from the Grave, ascended to the Father’s right hand, He will come again to judge the living and the dead. He is the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Christians know history is more than a chronology of people and movements. History is the arena in which God acted decisively in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself.

Christian existence in history is marked by hope for, “In many ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom He created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). “This means,” Sasse says, “that Christian faith as well as Christian hope can never exist without the recognition of historical fact.” [3]

Unbelief mocks Christian hope. This has been true from the beginning as we see from 2 Peter 3:4-9. Sasse observes that, “The first Christians were not Adventists. Had they been, they would not have survived the Parousia’s delay.”[4] They realized, “There is church only at the end of the world (1 Corinthians 10:11),” [5] and they were living in the presence of the coming Lord. “Even the Liturgy on Sunday is an anticipation of the liturgy of Heaven (Revelation 4), as every Sunday is celebrated as “The Lord’s Day” anticipates the Parousia (see the expression “Day of the Lord” from Amos 5:18). Only from this vantage point is it possible to understand the church of the New Testament and its hope anchored to the end.”[6] This hope is persecuted. Attempts are made to discredit or suppress it, but it is lively and life-giving because Jesus has made promises that death cannot break.

Attempts are made to discredit or suppress [our hope], but it is lively and life-giving because Jesus has made promises that death cannot break.

Christians wait in hope because the, “Holy Absolution and the justification of the sinner anticipate what happens on the Day of Judgment.”[7] Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a testimony to the fact that the Lord for whom we wait is already with us in His body and blood. The Sanctus proclaims Him: “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Sasse preached:

“Here the Church, wherever she lives, learns about who her Lord is, about whom she waits for despite all disappointment. And she can wait for Him because He is with her. That is the mystery of the expectation of the Early Church. She could wait, because she was with Him, hidden under the means of grace, in the Lord’s Supper. That is the mystery of the coming of Christ. Come, Lord Jesus! Surely, I am coming soon.”[8]

Fourth, we cannot escape the question of Jesus. In a sermon preached on the Third Sunday in Advent of 1933 on Matthew 11:2-11 under the title “Advent’s Ageless Question,” Sasse notes the persistence of the inquiry made by John the Baptist: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3) How John’s question is answered divides all of humanity into only two groups. Either Jesus is confessed as the Lord, God’s Christ or He is denied as an imposter, a fake Messiah. “This,” Sasse says, “has been the profound question of humanity since the first time the message of Advent rang throughout the world. It is a question of life, a true question of life for every man and for all peoples, a question that is really about life and death.”[9] Sasse reminds his hearers that all the quaint and lovely customs of Advent would be meaningless if Jesus is not the Savior He proclaims Himself to be. But if He is the Redeemer, He will open the doors of the dungeons imprisoning us in sin and death.

Sasse’s advent preaching is marked by a sober realism of the conditions of the world as well as a vibrant and joyful confidence in Christ’s promises. There are no platitudes to get his hearers around the horrors of war and the collapse of the myths of security manufactured by the failed Enlightenment. His unflinching proclamation of sin and grace, repentance and faith, and the finality of Christ serve us well in our day.