Grace to you and peace, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As the Advent days flow into Christmas, we see signs of celebration everywhere. Some secular, some religious. The crowds, the traffic, the frenzy of shopping, the Christmas trees, the carols, the ubiquitous Santa Claus jollying ho-ho-ho’s, the gift buying, the gift giving, the decorated churches, the Christmas plays, the sermons. This Advent has boundaries; it begins December 1st and does not exceed December 24th.
Yet, beloved in Christ, for all the millennia plus of its existence, the Church, unbound, has lived and continues to live in the Advent.
What?! How could that be? What nonsense! The Church exists year round! There must be another Advent!
Indeed, it does, and there is.
There are two Advents.
One Advent is that which the Church celebrates in December, and it points towards Christmas Day. In this Advent is the recounting of the narrative of the swaddled Baby (born to die) laid in the manger, the night-watching shepherds; the long-journeying Magi; the wondering parents; and a king who slaughtered innocents so that God’s will would not be done and His kingdom not come to His oppressed people.
The other Advent, uncelebrated by the Church, is the one in which she lives, and its terminal event is the eschaton or the Second Coming. That is the Christmas towards which all those who died in faith, that great crowd of witnesses have looked and yearned towards. This Advent, so full of dangers and threats on every side, in it we live the Church Militant: prayerful, a remnant, under siege, watching for the dearly longed-for Christmas Day.
The Church Militant is not the Church waging war with secular weapons of warfare. Instead, it is the Church on its knees; weak, yet strongest in weakness “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2 Cor 4:7b) The Church is not ours though we are the Church. It is Christ’s. She is His bride. He died for her. He is her head and she the Body. The Bride is strongest when she knows that she needs her Lord; therefore, the Church is strongest when persecuted for then, unable to save herself, she is confronted with her weakness and crying out to her Lord for for deliverance.
The Church Militant is not about great numbers, for where the two and the three are gathered in the name of Christ, there is the Church, and she will endure to the end. Instead, it is about the remnant, which the number 144,000 may signify, who are faithful to Christ to the end, regardless.
The Church Militant is the Church under siege, the blood of the martyrs mingled with the blood of Christ on the blood-stained banner ever rampant on the field. “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed”. (2 Cor 4:8-9) We are reviled and hated by the world for the sake of the Word of God. Still, we continue teaching and preaching the forgiveness of sin and salvation by baptism, through grace, through the hearing of the Word, and through faith in Christ alone.
In many countries today, we are imprisoned for righteousness sake. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “when Christ calls a man He bids him come and die.” Holding fast under persecution, “we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter”. (Ro 8:36c-d) Yet, we refuse to renounce our Savior deeming death preferable to denial of Him, knowing that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us”, (Ro 8:37) and “[a]lways bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” (2 Cor 4:10) Furthermore, we have the assurance of our reward for enduring through the tribulations of this world. (Rev 7:13-17) Though under siege, some will fall by the way, those who endure to the end will be saved.
It is brutal, this Advent. It is filled with wars, rumors of war, earthquakes in divers places, famine, distress, persecution, and prosecution. Perhaps the membership is falling because the cultural mavens mock at faith and the flesh of some is weak and so they fall away, preferring to be pleasers of men. Or, perhaps the shepherds think they can grow the church if only it would bend to the world and declare that some things in the Bible are outmoded. Why preach against sin? Why preach repentance for sin to make people feel uncomfortable? Perhaps, buildings are being destroyed by the heathen, or converted to heathen or other secular use; after all, who will object when the membership have fled? Though we may lose all, let us count it for naught.
There are those who would mock, deride, scorn, revile, rape, burn, persecute, prosecute, imprison, behead, and kill us. Nevertheless, they are not the enemy. Indeed, our enemy is well known and has been from before the Fall. Moreover, we know that he has already lost the battle. Jesus lives; the victory’s won, and that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ro 8:38-39)
In this brutal and trial-filled Advent in which the Church lives, bloodied but unbowed, we are sustained and consoled by these words of life: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” (Rev 2:10) Planting the cross firmly before us, we can look past our present troubles to the joy of a New Christmas Day.
This, the longest and unkindest Advent of all, wherein we live crying out “how long, Lord?” takes us to the Christmas of God’s rest. On that Day, like John, we will hear: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4) “
That is a Christmas Day devoutly to be beheld and celebrated. Until then, beloved, watch and pray.