The Helplessness Isn’t Permanent

Advent begins today.

It’s unfortunate that far too many churches these days have jettisoned the traditional observance of Advent. I’d say they’re missing out on a lot. Historically, the Church revisits her course at this moment, making sure her heading is sound and her crew is ready.

For all of the cultural twinklings surrounding it, Advent is a darker season dealing in two contrasting images.

The first is the darkness of penitential concern. It’s a time for recalling the very real predicament facing the world because of Sin’s infection.

With this in mind, Advent takes aim at Mankind’s impotence in relation to Sin’s chief product, which is Death. It also anticipates the final day when the Lord returns to judge both the living and the dead. Together in these, all time and opportunities will have ended. A last breath will have happened, or the Last Day will have arrived, and you will go. The time for even the most foolish negotiating will have passed. There will be no discussing or bending the standards. There will be no convincing God to your side with explanations that you did your best to keep the Law (the Ten Commandments). You won’t find room between the two of you for slight disagreement on what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Advent strips away all hope for leniency by works of the Law. It helps to remind us that “in Adam, all men die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). It puts before us the divine cue that the Law silences everyone, holding all humans accountable to God’s perfect standards (Romans 3:19). And lest we forget, Advent reminds us of the inescapable predicament of the Sin-nature in all of us. Standing beside the Law’s requirements, we’ll discover the impossibility of ever being counted righteous by our deeds (v. 20).

Advent teaches the hopelessness of human effort against all that plagues us when moving from this sphere to the next.

Advent also teaches that this dark night of helplessness isn’t permanent. Not only will it come to its completion at the Last Day, but Advent carries us back to the day the solution to the Sin problem was given—when Death was put on notice, and all of the long-foretold promises of God were completed in the God-man born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Advent looks to Christmas. It brings us back to the same sense of anticipation that’s ours as we await our last breath or we await the Last Day, except by faith, this time it’s fearless. It reminds us that the midnight concern of our lostness more than faded away in the sunrise of the Savior’s birth.

This is hope. Advent preaches this. It keeps before us the effervescent fact that God’s love moved Him to send His Son, Jesus, to save us, and faith’s grip on the merits of Jesus will, without question, see the believer through to eternal life. For believers, even though we die, yet shall we live (John 11:25). The One born on Christmas morn said this. In the same way, for believers, the Last Day will be like the celebration of Christmas. It won’t be a moment of terror, but rather a moment of bright-eyed joy. In fact, it will be a moment of familiarity, one that recalls the angels’ words to the shepherds about peace being accomplished between God and Man through the oncoming work of the newborn Christ. In that final moment before the returning Christ, such peace will be experienced as never before, and it will wash over us as we hear the voice of the One who once laid in a manger say, “Come and receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

Thanksgiving and God’s Smile

After fifty-two long weeks of travel, having visited all of the distant landscapes of the Church Year, we’ve come full circle and arrived once again at Advent. We’ve come home.

Still somewhat afar off, there’s a plain between us and Advent’s perpetual twilight eve of waiting—an oasis of sorts. It’s always been there. We just didn’t necessarily notice it until a handful of our nation’s most thoughtful carved it from the landscape, cultivated it, and made it a more prominent vista. They named this lush borderland “The National Day of Thanksgiving.”

Strangely, some of the Church Year’s travelers have been long-bothered by the demarcation of this day. Each year at this time, they share their concerns for such a day instituted by this world’s princes and celebrated by the Church. And so, passing through its parcel, they say it doesn’t belong—that the Last Sunday of the Church Year is well enough equipped for delivering us into the new Church Year, and the Day of National Thanksgiving needn’t be one of the Church’s events. I’d say these fellow travelers are right, if only by their humbug commentary they didn’t demonstrate a bizarre disposition against one more opportunity for thankfulness. Doing this, perhaps they prove, even more so, the National Day of Thanksgiving’s necessity.

I agree with them in the sense that thankfulness is already written into each and every stop along the Church Year’s way. This is true because it’s written into the souls of believing travelers by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. This means thankfulness is a fruit of faith that cannot be kept from sprouting from the soil of the Church’s collective heart, reaching up toward the sunlight of God’s grace, and rejoicing in His wonderfully sustaining love.

As this meets with the National Day of Thanksgiving, perhaps a day set aside and focused specifically on giving thanks works quite well between the Last Sunday of the Church Year and the First Sunday in Advent. The journey has ended, another is beginning, and both are born from the fact that God is always faithful all along the way. In between the two, thankfulness just seems natural. It’s what any normal traveler does when his journey has ended and he’s found himself at home’s doorstep. He does not wisp a thankless sigh, a sound made because he’s annoyed by home’s obligation. He sighs with thankful relief. He’s glad. And so, he falls to his knees—or perhaps he goes right inside to fall into his favorite chair, or into the arms of a loved one—and he gives thanks to the One who took careful notice of each of his steps along the way, being sure to guard and protect him through to the end of one journey, and into the brief respite granted before beginning another.

Saint Ambrose said so exactly: “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” In a radically individualized society filled with takers, I probably don’t need to explain Ambrose’s words to you.

With that, I say a day set aside that takes aim at thankfulness can do little, if anything, to harm our nation, let alone a Christian, no matter who established it. Besides, Christian thankfulness is already attuned within us. It’s always on the lookout for ways to show itself to a thankless culture. We need it to show itself. It certainly knows how. It knows far better than the world. Again, this is true because Christian thankfulness is powered by the right kind of joy—the kind born from the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. It is well-equipped for seizing every opportunity for gratitude in this life as we await the next. Christian thankfulness exists through sunshine and rain, warmth and cold, happiness and sorrow.

Just imagine how Christian thankfulness must leap for joy when it sees it has its own day on the calendar.

I suppose you don’t need to imagine it. Our Savior in Hartland is not a congregation that ignores the National Day of Thanksgiving. We’re glad for it, and we embrace it. It seems natural to do so. Perhaps even better, it seems only right. Come and see for yourself. Join the thanks-filled gathering of Christians here at Our Savior on November 25 at 10:00am. Join us as we take hold of the National Day of Thanksgiving and use it in a way that makes God smile; which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re gathering to give anything to or do anything for Him that He needs. We gather because of what He gives and does, and we have hearts for receiving more. We desire His soul-strengthening gifts of forgiveness through Word and Sacrament ministry. We want to receive this heavenly bounty whenever we can, and after each opportunity, to be sent out by His smile, which is the gracious benediction of His face shining upon us and giving us peace.

Indeed! O, give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good, and His mercies endure forever (Psalm 136:1)!

God bless and keep you, my friends, and may you have a wonderfully happy Thanksgiving. I hope to see you in worship. And, if I do, I’ll have one more reason to give thanks to my faithful God, not only for His grace, but also for your faithfulness.