Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is traditionally a season of repentance. We usually think of Advent as leading up to Christmas and Christ’s birth. And that’s one aspect of Advent. That was the first Advent when Christ was born of the virgin Mary and God became flesh.
But, then after his death and resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us and to pour out the Holy Spirit upon us. So, he is still with us now through Word and Sacrament, his means of grace; this is often called the hidden Advent.
But, there is a greater day that is coming. On that day we will behold the Lord face to face and no longer through His means of grace. This is the third and final advent when the Lord returns for the resurrection and the judgement.
On that day, the Lord “will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven;” Christ will gather his Church to Himself. But, we do not know when this day will be; it is impossible for us to predict, because God does not give us the answer. So, Christ tells us to stay awake – remain faithful – and continue to look for his coming, because it will be at a day and hour we do not expect (Mark 13:24-37).
There is an important word in this Gospel reading from Mark 13:24-37 today that we may gloss over without really registering what it means. The word is in verse 27: “elect.” Christ says that his angels will gather his elect. What does elect mean?
Well, a fuller sense of the word “elect” that we often encounter in the Scriptures is “predestined.” I think that while we might be comfortable with the words “elected” and “chosen,” the word “predestined” causes us to become uncomfortable. The words “elected” and “chosen” leave us some room to equivocate and try to inject our own merits into the case. We may say, “Well God elected or chose us, because of something we did or something He knew in advance we would do; we gave God a reason to elect us, just as a politician gives voters a reason to elect him to office.” But, the word “predestined” closes these loopholes; for if something is predestined, then it is already determined beforehand.
But doesn’t this word “predestined” conjure up images in our minds of people who have no choice in the matter and have no free will? This is why it makes us uncomfortable, isn’t it? We want to hold onto our notions of “free will.” Especially as Americans, we tend to recoil from anything that seems to limit our freedom. We want to be free to do anything we want.
This is where we as Lutherans come in with our “distinctions,” for which we are sometimes derided. But, these “distinctions” help us make sense of things, including election and predestination and freedom.
So, there is a distinction between the vertical relationship we have with God and the horizontal relationship we have in the world. The Latin terms are corum Deo – before God – and corum mundo – before the world.
So, in our horizontal relationships, our life in the world (corum mundo), we have free will, to the extent that any of us are truly free to do as we wish. We can choose who to marry, what car to drive, where to live, what stores to shop at on Black Friday, what size of peppermint mocha to drink. We have the ability to choose how we live out our lives in this world. But, this free will only applies to this horizontal realm of our lives in the world, and even that only partially, if you really think about it.
Where we really mess up is when we try to apply this thinking to the vertical realm, our relationship with God (coram Deo). If we try to take the way things work in the horizontal realm – before the world – and force it upright to try to explain our relationship in the vertical realm – before God – then we end up on the wrong track. For if we believe we have free will with respect to our relationship with God, then we lead ourselves to believe that it is our choice to believe in God, that it is our choice to accept Christ, that it is our choice to be saved.
These are very common views, but also very dangerous ones, because it leaves us on very weak ground. It puts us on sandy ground that is easily washed away when the torrents of struggle and strife come. It’s weak ground, because it ultimately rests on us – the strength of our faith, the strength of our convictions, the strength of our “free will.”
Eventually, the day will come when we will realize the truth of what the prophet Isaiah says when he wrote that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Of all the things we do, of all the choices of supposed “free will” that we make, our faith is the thing that we are most tempted to turn into our own work and the supreme example of our so-called “free will.” We want faith to be our work, so that we can have credit for it. Doing this makes our faith into our most righteous deed.
And yet, notice what Isaiah says. He doesn’t say that our sins or our bad deeds are like a polluted garment. He says that our “righteous deeds” are, because we cannot justify ourselves before God. What’s more, if we try to maintain our sense of “free will” with respect to our relationship with God, we will eventually reach the point where we realize that we are weak, our choices are weak, our convictions are weak, and our own “free will” may perhaps not be so free.
Think about all the times where you or others have failed to live up to your promises or pledges. If this is the strength of our convictions and free will with regards to things we actually do have some control over (that is, our lives in this horizontal realm before the world), what does this say about our relationship with God, our standing in the vertical realm?
I would submit to you that this shows the truth of what Isaiah says, that “… all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Left to our own strength, our own convictions, and our own sense of “free will,” we would forever remain lost and condemned sinners, because we will fail us and others. We have no free will with respect to our standing before God, because we are by nature slaves of sin and condemned already. Jesus told Nicodemus in John chapter 3 that he came into the world not to condemn the world, because we are condemned already; the point is that he came to save us from this condemnation, because we do not have the ability or freedom to do so. We are by nature slaves of sin and death, and cannot free ourselves from these chains. All of our righteous deeds can not free us from this slavery, for even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. Paul picks up this topic quite a bit in his epistle to the Romans.
Once we realize that we can do nothing to fix our relationship with God, a relationship that we broke due to our sinful nature inherited from Adam and Eve and our sinful acts that we ourselves have done, then we are on the path to repentance. Once we realize that our faith is not our own work but rather God’s, then we are much better off because we move from our sandy ground to the rock of Christ. Once we realize that the Lord is our Father, we are the clay and He is the potter, and we are the work of his hands, then we begin to understand what grace means.
For grace means that God has elected us solely because of what Christ has done for us on the cross. Grace means that God has had mercy on us, even though we didn’t deserve it. Grace means that God has predestined us for salvation to make sure it happens, because if left to ourselves, we would mess it up. Grace means that our salvation doesn’t depend on the strength of our convictions, the strength of our choices, or the strength of our faithfulness, but on God’s. Our convictions are weak, our choices are fickle, and we are unfaithful, but “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
So, the doctrine of election and predestination is not meant to cause discomfort, instead it is meant to be comforting, because it shifts the focus from our works and our choices back to where the focus belongs: on God’s works and His choices and what He tells us in the Scriptures.
And it’s a great comfort that our salvation doesn’t depend on us. We are weak, we are inconsistent, we are inconstant, we are unfaithful. But, the Lord is strong, He is consistent, He is constant, and He is faithful. And He has promised you salvation and eternal life with Him through His Son, and He has gathered you together as His people, and He is returning for you on the Last Day to gather you together to be with Him for eternity in a restored creation. And you can be sure of this promise, because it rests in God and not in you, and God is able to fulfill this promise and is faithful to do it. So, until Jesus returns, we are to “stay awake” and wait for his coming, for you are His people for whom He is returning. Amen.
(Image: Last Judgement. 12th-century Byzantine mosaic from Torcello cathedral (after 19th-century restoration). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3024531 )