The Second Sunday in Advent
+ IN NOMINE IESU +
Children don’t have a difficult time going to bed and falling asleep on Christmas Eve because they’re afraid of what awaits them on Christmas morning. They don’t expect to wake up to a stocking full of coal. No, they have trouble falling asleep because they are so excited about what awaits them on Christmas morning. They stay awake, they hold back their yawning, they fight to keep their eyes open because they want to take everything in, they want to experience every part of what is coming. They don’t want to miss out by sleeping.
Of course, we adults know better. We discourage them in their excitement. We think that tomorrow will come seemingly more quickly if we just go to bed. But that misses the whole point. It’s the point that children see and that we, in our wisdom and age, once knew but now have long forgotten.
For children it’s not just about it being Christmas morning. It’s not just about the presents, although it includes this, to be sure. For children it’s about taking in all the sights and sounds and smells of Christmas. It’s about making it last and enjoying it because once it’s over it’s over. It’s about getting to Christmas Day. It’s about the journey and the destination: the watching for it, longing for it, looking for it.
When our our Lord said, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless you become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I think this is what He actually had in mind. We typically use this verse to justify our own infantilism. We think that our Lord means we need to be simple like children, to be unencumbered by complex doctrine and not get stuck in details. But is there anyone more stuck on details than children? If you doubt this, try skipping one line in the book you’re reading them, and they will most certainly point it out. They relish the details. And the more the better.
All normal children, despite our best efforts to discourage them, look forward to growing up, to becoming adults, to become big like their mothers or fathers. They have a deep desire and excited longing to learn more, to delve deeper into complicated things, to understand how they work, to know what will make them grown and mature like the adults they hold in high esteem. They desire to move beyond milk into solid food, into things with substance, and they look forward to it with great joy and expectation, with enthusiasm and longing.
“Unless you become as little children,” says our Lord. That is, unless you can wake up on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, “you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless you can’t sleep for the joy and excitement that awaits your seventieth Christmas morning to come just as when you were seven, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And yet we don’t. We think we know better. We’ve put those childish things behind us, even though we’re not afraid to say we need to be like children if it justifies our lack of knowledge or understanding. But it’s not because we know better. It’s because we are weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life. Unlike children, we have baggage—emotional and spiritual. We do not wake every morning like we did when we were five. We do not wake up every morning with the same anticipation of what this day will bring, as we did when we were children. We don’t get excited about the things of God, His first coming in the flesh, His second coming to bring us home, or His continual coming in Word and Sacrament, as children do for Christmas morning.
And that is why our Lord says “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life.” It’s a bit odd, isn’t it, that after our Lord describes His second coming on the clouds to judge the living and the dead, and the signs that will indicate His return, that he says “Watch yourselves.“ One would expect, based on His previous statements that our Lord would say, “Therefore, watch for these things to take place.” Or “Pay attention, therefore, to when these things begin to happen.” But He doesn’t. He says instead “Pay attention to yourselves.” It seems counterintuitive. What is the point of telling us about signs that will indicate His second coming, when we aren’t to look for these but rather watch ourselves?
He tells us to watch ourselves so that we are not weighed down with dissipation, so that we are not weighed down with waste, with excess, with indulgence, decadence, drunkenness, and promiscuity. He tells us to pay attention to ourselves so that we are not weighed down by despair, by the cares of this world, by what we will eat or drink, by what we will wear or where we will live. He tells us to watch ourselves so that we will not be taken by surprise when these things take place. He tells us these things so that we will be ready. And not just ready, but eagerly awaiting and expecting it. That we will long and yearn for it, the way that children long to grow up, the way that children long for Christmas morning to come and stay awake watching and looking for it, so that when it happens, when that day comes and the Son of Man is seen descending upon the clouds, we will stand up and lift up our heads to see our redemption.
The only way we are able to watch ourselves is to do so by looking in a mirror. And there is only one mirror that tells us the truth about ourselves, both inside and out. And this mirror will never pass away. It is the mirror of our Lord’s Words. While heaven and earth and all that is in them will pass away, Jesus says, “My Words will not pass away.” Looking into the mirror of God’s Word shows us who we are, that we have failed to keep it, that we are sinners. But more than that it shows how we have fail and how we sinned. It shows us that our hearts have grown cold toward God’s blessings, that we have become numb to the joy of God’s coming in the flesh, His coming again to save us from this fallen world, and His continual coming in His Word and in His Body and Blood.
Thus, we pray “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son . . . .” We may fool men, and even ourselves, but we never fool God. He knows what we do in secret, and He knows our hearts and minds. And despite that He loves us, and comes to purify our hearts and minds, to thaw what is cold and frozen with the warmth of His light and love.
Pay attention to yourselves then. Hear His Words that expose the coldness of our hearts toward holy things and gives light and warmth, joy and comfort unto eternal life. Hear His Words, mark them, learn them, and inwardly digest them, like children longing to grow up, longing to learn and grow, longing to delve deeper into complicated and weighty things. Watch yourselves and stay awake, do not be weighed down by the dark and cold of this world or of your hearts, hitting snooze and rolling over to bury yourselves in the covers. Rather repent, turn from it and turn toward the warmth of the sun of righteousness who comes with healing in His wings. Stay awake, praying that the Lord would stir up your hearts to make it ready for the coming of Christ, the way children’s hearts are ready and waiting and eagerly anticipate Christmas morning to come that they cannot fall asleep. With longing and excitement watch for the end of all things, look for it and long for it. For when it comes, when He comes to judge the living and the dead, His judgment upon you not be a verdict of guilty and sentence to hell. His judgment will be a verdict innocent, righteous, and holy and a sentence to eternal life with Him.
C. S. Lewis, the renown author of many children’s books, described Hell in His Chronicles of Narnia as a place where “it is always winter and never Christmas.“ Where it is always cold and dark, and where the warmth and joy of the light of Christ that Christmas brings never comes. Our waiting has both. We have the cold and dark of winter and the warmth and joy of Christmas. And when our Lord comes again in judgment, He comes to bring us to a place where it is never winter and always Christmas. Where it is never cold and dark, but always filled with warmth and joy. This is what you wait for. This is what you’re watching for.
And here is where you make ready your hearts to receive it. This is the place where it is always Christmas, always Good Friday, always Easter—every single Sunday. This is the place where there is always joy even amid sadness and warmth amid the cold. And that is because this is the place where Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and raised on the third day comes every week to give you what He came to earth to accomplish, the place where your redemption is given in His Word and in His Body and Blood. So pull of the covers, arise from your slumber, and straighten up, raise your heads and rejoice, your redemption has come, is here, and is coming again soon. Amen.