First Sunday in Advent 2021

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

Walter, New Pastor

We moved to Bonham when I was four. All moves are traumatic even when we are moving towards something better, because there is a great loss of familiar patterns and routines and much uncertainty until we have established the new normal. Some may remember that our mother was the cradle Lutheran and the parent, who always had to adapt the most. After the exciting war years when our father and she fell in love on the U.S. Army Hospital Ship Seminole, they moved with their new baby, Norman, to Fort Worth, where our father had many relatives and a job waiting. Then, Dad’s work moved them to a smaller city, Texarkana, one half in Arkansas and the other in Texas, where the twins and I were born.

There, Mom became a valuable member of First Lutheran Church and an excellent Sunday School teacher. Pastor Robert Helberg baptized the three younger children, which cemented his place as an adjunct family member for life. Even though we lived in a rent house and had no car or television until Dad’s work was taking us to Bonham, we loved our life in Texarkana. The older kids had friends at school, at church, and especially in the neighborhood. Not even the promise of having our own home made up for all the losses incurred. Mom did not fare well nor did the older children entering eighth and sixth grades.

Walter was a tall, awkward Kansas farm boy in his first call, a two-point pastorate in the larger town of Denison and the rural community of Allen’s Chapel. His wife was giving birth to baby after baby, while her husband was constantly racing on backroads from church to church. What he lacked in experience or knowledge, Walter made up for with a rigid devotion to the pure doctrine he had memorized and all the authoritarianism of a newly-minted second lieutenant. Our most vivid memories of him include his descent from the pulpit halfway through a thirty-minute sermon, to drag the two oldest sons he had in tow, sans mother, to the closet labeled an office, where he proceeded to spank them loudly. Noisy sniffles ensued.

When the husbands of two of the older female saints, one an Allen as in Allen’s Chapel, refused his demand that they return to worship, Walter publicly excommunicated them as the matriarchal ladies wept. Mysteriously, he accepted a new call shortly thereafter, but not before he had scarred my older siblings with the wrath of God and pitiful little gospel. He was the antithesis of those who preach cheap grace. Both Walter and they had not learned rightly to divide Law and Gospel, wasting the death of God’s Son.

When the Lord Jesus, truly God and truly human, returns in glory to judge the quick and the dead, all will be revealed in that moment. His sheep, who have known and followed His voice, will have, with thanksgiving for their Lord’s saving death “for us and our salvation,” served their neighbors as their Father intends. The goats may have bleated “Lord, Lord,” but only have served themselves with good things. Some may have looked severely pious and built a grand resume, but the disposition of all hearts will be exposed. Ours, too! As the Lord Jesus taught, the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest.

Martin Luther is often quoted as saying this life is growth in righteousness, but bumper stickers and memes do not a theologian make. There is civil righteousness, which is what scouting and service organizations used to promote as good citizenship. That righteousness is Law and not Gospel. Anyone can make him- or herself civilly righteous, yes, but spiritual righteousness can only be given to us by our Baptism into Christ Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. Growth in righteousness is the Holy Spirit’s work in and on us, day by day, through the Word and Sacraments. This is the Gospel, properly the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake, at work. We practice the faith with repentance that it will be there when we need it.

Pain can be a great teacher, and Walter got knocked around a lot by life. Eventually, he made it back to Allen’s Chapel, where he served the congregation for a time as a shriven soul. So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom (Psalm 90:12). So Advent begins with a warning, yes, but also an encouragement to keep the faith day by day and to look forward to our Lord’s return with hope.

Dear Father, grant us grace to accept the things we cannot change and to be safely brought by our Good Shepherd to the new heaven and earth to worship you forever. In Jesus’ holy name. Amen.

Place one penny, nickel, or dime in a bowl or box as a sign of love for neighbors in need.

Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, NC

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.