Homily for the Populus Zion (Second Sunday in Advent)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Say to
the people of Zion: ‘Behold, your salvation comes.’ The Lord will cause His majestic
voice to be heard and you shall have gladness of heart.” Dear brothers and sisters in
our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, these are the words of this morning’s introit that
Micah and I chanted responsively a bit earlier at the beginning of our service.
Hopefully you recognized them, as they are taken directly from the book of the
prophet Isaiah, chapters sixty-two and thirty, respectively. Historically this Second
Sunday of Advent has been called Populus Zion Sunday, from the Latin phrase for
“the people of Zion.” You see, often times Sundays in the historic church year were
named after the first few Latin words of the day’s introit. And today the introit begins
in Latin: Populus Zion or “the people of Zion” – those to whom Isaiah’s words were
addressed. Now of course, the addressee for God’s Word is always His people, the
people of His Zion. That is true for all our readings this morning, and it is simply true
in general. And God’s message to His people today, on Populus Zion Sunday, is fairly
straightforward: salvation is at hand and the kingdom of God is always near.
While I believe this is accurate for most of the Advent readings in the three-
year lectionary cycle, it is certainly accurate when it comes to the readings in the one-
year lectionary, which we are now following here at Bethlehem – and that is this: that
our Advent readings are all about the Second Coming, the salvation soon at hand, the
kingdom ever close by. Advent is all about Christ’s return, or at the very least, the
first few weeks of Advent are quite clearly about that. And as we’ve been talking
through for a while now, Christ’s return will involve judgment.
So part of the point of Advent is to motivate and inspire us to remain conscious and
mindful of the fact of that impending judgement. Advent is, after all, a somewhat
penitential season to an extent, kind of like Lent. And so the hope is that through this
slightly penitential liturgical season, God’s people will be reminded to persist in
repentance and to remain altogether ready and faithful unto the end.
But there’s something else I feel needs to be said in this season, especially on
this Sunday, given our introit and our readings. God is coming back, of course. The
God Who is now far off will return. Christ will return. Eternal salvation is coming, as
is the kingdom of God, we’ve made note of that reality a lot recently. But at the same
time, God is already here, right? He is with us now. His kingdom is also on earth, it is
this particular place all around us, and indeed it is us, the one, holy, Christian and
apostolic church, where many are gathered in Lord’s holy name. The God Who is far
off is at the same time always present in our midst and abiding with us. He never
leaves us nor forsakes us. And what is more, when He does come back finally in the
flesh as judge, it will not be a sad or sorrowful judgment for us believers. Instead, it
will be a glorious day, the most glorious day when we will reap the bountiful benefits
of being reckoned eternally righteous before the Father on account of the Son’s
I mean, after all, think about it: what exactly does Jesus say in St. Luke’s
gospel this morning. He says: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout
their leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when
you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
There will be signs before the end, that is entirely true, but they will be signs that
ultimately portend something good for the faithful, that foretell something beautiful,
that forecast something fecund and fruitful and full of life. Summer is coming. Eternal
summer and unending rescue and redemption, these things are coming. That is not a
somber reality to have to contemplate, but the greatest possible news and good tidings
to ever have the pleasure of hearing. Winter will someday be over for good, and
summer will last forever. All that to say, Advent, while semi-penitential like Lent, it is
not a dismal or gloomy season, not at all – even despite the cold weather and shorter
hours of daylight. Rather, it is instead a season of immense joy and hopeful
expectation for the future, both for Christmas and later on for that endless summer
soon coming with the consummation of the age.
Now as I said, our God is far off in one sense. We know this. He is the God
Who makes the sun to shine and the rains to fall. He holds the whole universe together
by His will and His Word. And thanks be to God that He is far off, way up there,
taking care of everything, taking care of business, so to speak, providing for
everything that exists from on high. But He is moreover right here with us. The God
Who once spoke all things into existence and Who has sustained them for thousands
of years is now everywhere near us – and He has promised in particular to be with us
right here, in His holy church, through His holy Word and through the holy
Sacraments. He is far off, to be sure, and yet so incredibly and unexplainably near.
What is more, salvation is eventually coming on the Last Day, and yet it is
already very much present, in our baptism, in the words of Holy Absolution, in the
Lord’s Supper. Christ is coming again as divine judge at the end of time.
And yet He is coming in several weeks as well, within our space and time, as a baby
boy born in a manger, while we relive the life of Christ through the church year. And
He is coming this morning in His own body and blood, again very much in space and
time, to be really and truly and physically available for those of us who have need.
God is distant and yet never all that distant. He is above us and yet with us here below
Now we surely feel His distance when we struggle in this life, we feel His
distance and a seeming separation from Him when we hurt and ache, whenever we
suffer disappointment and loss and tragedy, whenever we fall into sin even. But that
distance and apparent separation is only temporary, as I’ve said before. And really, it
is only a feeling, a passing, fleeting sentiment, not necessarily a reality. It is only the
pain of having to wait for His final return and permanent presence. God is with us
now already, but His presence will only be fuller and unmistakable and without end,
in fact, when He does come again. For on that coming day, there will be no more pain
or problems, no reason to weep or worry, for there will be no more waiting at all.
God is far off and yet He is as near as ever before. And someday very soon, He
we will be even closer than that, however that’s even possible. The distance on that
last day will be undone forever. He will be even closer when He comes to rescue us
and take us home to His kingdom forever, to be with Him and in Him, when He
carries us in His loving arms toward that eternal summer on the horizon, where the fig
trees and all the trees, most notably the tree of life, sprout their leaves without end.
When we will all walk together in the cool of day in paradise once more.
But I know what some of you are perhaps thinking: all that sounds nice enough,
but pastor, don’t underestimate or understate just how difficult life is right now. The
current wait is not easy, I know. I acknowledge that. God is near, we all recognize that
to be true, we confess it consistently, but sometimes it simply does not feel that way,
does it? We know we are saved, and yet with everything that we have to put up with
this side of the grave, sometimes it is hard to feel or even begin to believe in God’s
proximity, in His tender mercy and closeness. I get it. To be honest with you, that has
been on my mind a great deal this past week.
You see, I usually sit down to write Sunday’s sermon on Tuesday morning, the
day after my day off, at the start of the week. Well this past Monday night, the night
right before sermon-writing-morning, I had a panic attack at home. Maybe it isn’t
obvious to you from the pews, but I do struggle with severe anxiety on occasion, even
in the pulpit sometimes. Always have, ever since I was a kid. It hasn’t been overly bad
these past few years, fortunately. I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack in probably
four years. But Monday night, for whatever reason, I did. It came out of nowhere,
evidently unprovoked. And in that most unwelcome moment, feeling a total loss of
control and an intense fear and trepidation deep in my bones, I did not feel God’s
presence at all. Suffice to say, God did not seem close to me in the least in that
situation. On the contrary, He seemed very, very far off; if I’m being honest, almost as
if He weren’t even there at all. And that only made the panic that much worse.
Thankfully, the attack eventually subsided. I went to sleep. Then woke up the
next day. And that Tuesday morning, before I set about to work on this sermon, I
thought long and hard about what had happened. Why did God let that happen?
Why did He remove His presence from me temporarily? Or why did He at least let me
feel that way? Why did He withdraw from me from my perspective? Why did He
allow me to be so afraid? What was the purpose and meaning of the anxiety and panic
and angst? And after a while of pondering all this in prayer, I started to get some
slight sense of clarity. You know, in life sometimes, even in the life of a pastor, you
just get into a rhythm. A habit. And over time, one day can start to kind of bleed into
another. I’m not saying you begin to go on autopilot, but maybe a little bit, yeah. You
just go about your business, doing your job, as pastor, husband, father, whatever your
vocations may be. And maybe sometimes you start to do all that in an unthinking way.
Without complete and total awareness. It all just becomes another part of the
humdrum habit and routine rhythm of daily life.
And so I cannot help but think that God allowed me personally to panic in that
moment, to feel His distance in the depth of my soul, on an existential level, in order
to wake me up from the slothful slumber of my own habit and rhythm. In order to
remind me what this time of year is really all about – to remind me what this life is all
about – and to remind me of what this overlong wait for Jesus is all about. In other
words, I think God let me suffer so as to discipline me, to mortify me. And thanks be
to God for that. Yes, thanks be to God that He allows us to feel His distance, even to
the point of sheer panic, so that we might actually appreciate His presence and
nearness. Thanks be to God that He lets us wait for Him, so that one day we might be
able to cherish His eternal arrival, His final advent. Which is all to say, thanks be to
God that He permits us to suffer for now, that in the life to come, we might never have
to and can at last enjoy the peace to be had in His everlasting company.
We are going to hurt now and again. That’s true enough. Here in space and
time, we are going to continue to lose loved ones, sad to say. We are going to be
heartbroken. We are going to be afraid and petrified from time to time. And if Jesus
Christ doesn’t come back first, we are all going to die someday. That is a fact. We are
not promised an easy way out of the temporal and earthly consequences of our sin.
But we are promised an eternal release on the other side of glory. An eternal escape,
as it were. We are promised never-ending freedom and liberty when this life of grief is
over and done with. We are promised final peace and rest in God Himself. And even
here and now, we are promised that God is always with us, by our side, on our team.
Even when He feels distant and far off, even when we panic and lose sight of Him, He
is nevertheless with us, bearing us up.
Perhaps He occasionally lets us feel alone and separated from Him in order to
teach us something significant. We know that He works all things for the good of
them that love Him, so that must be right. But even when He is disciplining us and
instructing us through hardship and fear and isolation and testing of all sorts, in the
midst of whatever trial, we still have that most perfect promise of all: “I will never
really leave you nor forsake you.” That’s His unbreakable promise to us. Even in the
abyss of our panic and pain, God has us in His arms, pressed to His own loving
bosom. Even when we wonder: Why Lord? Or how long, Lord? How long until you
return already? Even when we speak this periodic doubt to ourselves, or cry it out
loud when we’re alone, He still understands fully. He gets us. And He is right there
with us, even as we question and lack trust in Him. He is right there, reminding us that
there are more souls to be born and to save.
That there is more work yet to do here below. And that there is more to learn this side
of heaven, even for us, and yes, even by means of the trial and tribulation of waiting
throughout this burdensome life. Christ will come back on His own time and His own
terms, not ours. And there’s a reason for that, too. There’s a reason why God lets
everything that happens happen. And so there has to be some consolation in that fact.
“Say to the people of Zion: ‘Behold, your salvation comes.’” That is the
consolation. You, brothers and sisters, are the people of Zion, those addressed by
God’s words through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. You are God’s chosen people;
your baptism proves it. So know this as well: your salvation comes, now and
continually and eternally. He comes in a few weeks’ time by the name of Immanuel,
meaning “God with us,” in order to bear our flesh through the virgin-womb, through a
child born of Bethlehem Ephrathah. And while following His life, death, and
resurrection, Jesus ascended above and went back home and left us here below nearly
two thousand years ago, He of course did not leave us without hope. He explicitly
promised to return and receive us unto Himself where He is in His Father’s house.
And He will do just that one of these days. Your salvation will come again, to take
you home, to give you that much-needed rest in bliss.
But even now, this morning, your salvation comes as well. The Holy Spirit is
here in this place, bringing you back to your Holy Baptism through the words of
forgiveness. And here momentarily, your salvation comes in the lowly form of the
bread and wine. Why does He do this? Why does the Counselor and Comforter, the
Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, Whom Christ sent to us, surround us in this place? Why
does Christ Himself continue to feed us with His own body and blood?
Well, to strengthen our faith, for starters. And to make ready our bodies and souls for
immortality. But also, and equally as important, to remind us that even our far-off
God dwells right here with us always. Salvation comes even during and all throughout
the long wait for the permanence of salvation’s arrival. Our salvation is a gift given
over the course of a lifetime. God is a God of heaven and earth, He dwells above and
right here, far and near. And as I said before, here in this place He is as close as ever.
God comes here to literally dwell inside you. You are never actually alone. He never
leaves you. He never forsakes you. Instead, He goes with you wherever – He enters
into your body and being through the bread and wine, to make you whole. To lift you
up for the long and uncertain wait. To sustain you for the tough lessons of this life, the
hard teachings of patience and Christian virtue, which God Himself allows for your
own good, just as He does for mine.
You, dearly beloved, are the people of Zion. And you have heard God’s
majestic voice this day already. You have heard God speak through the words of
forgiveness articulated by me, His lowliest minister, in His stead and by His
command, for your sake. You have heard God address you personally in His holy
Word. And here soon, you will hear the Lord’s majestic voice once again, when His
own words are uttered in a chant over these common elements of life and its
abundance, when what is so very close at hand, this bread and wine, is consecrated so
that our Lord Who is now far off may soon dwell so nearly. And as was proclaimed
by the psalmist today in our gradual between the readings, our God comes and when
He does, He does not keep silence. That is reiterated throughout Holy Scripture.
So in light of that wonderful truth, as the prophet Isaiah once counseled and
encouraged, so do I: may your heart thus be gladdened, friends. May your heart be
gladdened by the sweetness of God’s majestic voice, which cannot be silenced! May
you yourself be heartened by the voice of the God of all creation Himself. For behold,
your salvation comes. It is promised with a promise never to be broken. It is coming
now and soon. He is coming now and soon. Today, in a few weeks’ time, and when
that eternal summer at last arrives. And that salvation of yours, it never leaves you. He
never leaves you for a moment. You are never without hope or help. Therefore, take
all comfort in the profound nearness and perfect proximity of your God, even and
especially when you briefly lose sight of it. You are safe, dear saints, you are secure,
don’t worry, don’t panic. For behold, He comes. So everything is going to be okay,
for now and forever. I promise you that. He has promised you that. In the most holy
name of our coming and yet already present Lord, in the name of Jesus. Amen.