Sunday, December 1, 2013

First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.

The church calendar is cyclical. We begin with Advent, go through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and then Pentecost. The last few weeks of each year, during the month of November, we look forward to the coming of Christ the King. It is a great way to see the whole story of God in a year, to celebrate the works of His hands, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. We see the life and ministry of Jesus develop until He is finally given the Kingdom forever first on the Cross, through the empty tomb and then on Christ the King Sunday. One of the disadvantages is that we go from Christ the King directly into Advent, thus moving from the promise fulfilled to the promise yet to come. It is hard to go back to the beginning once we’ve seen the end.

We begin the season of Advent in darkness. Today’s Gospel lesson is not very hopeful. Jesus tells his disciples to keep watch for the time of His coming, and to be doing everything He has commanded: loving God with our whole heart and loving one another as ourselves. He warns his disciples that no one will know the time when the Son of Man will come. He tells them to prepare their hearts so that they will be strong against those who try to confuse them with false doctrine, false prophets who will come. As the day grows closer, Satan will become more desperate to deceive the children of God. His tactics will become harder to detect, easier to pass from one another.

On this first Sunday of Advent we are reminded that the Christmas season is about more than presents and parties. We encourage each other to take time for God, to experience His coming with prayer and devotional time. It is likely that most people who are reading this already do those things, even outside the season. For many Christians, the Christmas season brings them into fellowship with Christians more often. We have extra services. We have fellowship gatherings. We have Christmas pageants and programs.

We also deal with the secular aspects of the holiday season. A confession: I like the secular aspects of Christmas. I like to shop for Christmas presents, even on Black Friday. I like to have the biggest, brightest Christmas tree. I like to bake cookies and make ornaments for my family. I enjoy the brightness, the joy and the love of the season. But even though I like these things, I am troubled like so many of you by the pervasiveness of the worldly and greedy aspects of the holidays.

Black Friday is a uniquely American problem, although I’m sure other nations deal with a time that is considered an official beginning to the shopping season. Not that it really matters to us, since most of the stores have been stocked and selling Christmas gifts for weeks, or even months, already. Black Friday, however, is when retailers offer their best deals. They are preparing with piles of electronics at unheard of prices, as well as miles of shelves with the most popular toys. The ads have been online for weeks and people have been preparing to rush to the stores the minute they open so that they’ll be the first in line to get the best deals. You have to be there early or you might not get one of the limited quantities available.

I heard a story last week that some men set up a tent outside an electronics store so that they could be the first in line. They’ve been living on the sidewalk for days already. They have always been second to another group and they wanted to beat the rush. Why? So they can buy more stuff at great prices. They needed to be first, even though they’ve always gotten the deals, too. Do they really need the items that the store is offering? Do they really need another television or video game system or smart phone? I don’t know, but they are willing to go to great lengths to get it anyway.

They aren’t the only ones. Many shoppers will be at the doors of their favorite stores the minute they open just so they can be the first to get the best deals. Sadly, some stores have moved Black Friday to Thursday evening. Each year the hours for opening have gotten earlier and earlier. I didn’t mind being in the crowds at o’dark-thirty, but as the time moved from 6 a.m. to midnight to the evening of Thanksgiving, I stopped paying attention to the ads. The fun of Black Friday (and yes, I used to think it was fun) is gone, and now it is a sad indictment of our national focus on the wrong things. Something is seriously wrong when the news reports are filled with stories of people who have been injured in the mad rush to buy a television.

Something is seriously wrong when you hear stories like this one: A woman has the Thanksgiving celebration at her house every year, and works for hours to make everything wonderful for her family. Last year, however, a bunch of her family members ate dinner, wiped their mouths and rushed out the door to go to the mall so that they could be there in time for the sales. She said that she was hurt and disappointed that they were more interested in shopping than spending time together. “I won’t invite them again,” she said. A family is falling apart because of this need to be the first in line for the sale.

I suppose in some ways this is exactly what it means to be entering Advent in darkness. Even though the decorations are up and the lights are twinkling, the attitudes and expectations of the people are exactly why Jesus came in the first place. People are looking to the world instead of to God. People are more interested in fulfilling some quest for the perfect gift (although I imagine a lot of the shopping is not even for others) than in spending time in the company of family and friends. All too often those gifts are not from the heart, but are bought and given out of some duty. After all, third cousin twice removed Bernice really is expecting another duck figurine. And that nephew you don’t even see expects at least a $50 gift card, right?

We fill the night with Christmas lights, but we are wandering in this darkness that has our focus on everything but God. It is no wonder, then, that we begin the Advent season with a warning: Christ can return at any moment. It might be tomorrow or it might not happen for another ten thousand years. No matter when He comes, we are warned to be prepared. As we were discussing this text in Sunday school, several of the men who are retired military were reminded of their packs that were always ready to go. They had several bags, including one that had personal items like underwear and shaving kit. Those bags were kept close at hand because they could be told that they would be leaving in an hour. They didn’t have time to go home and pack. They barely had time to kiss their families good-bye.

There were times when the call was expected. On those occasions they could go through the bag and make sure that the underwear was not holey and the can of shaving cream was full. However, sometimes the time was short, so they went with the pack as it was, even if it was not complete. It is the same when we talk about being ready for Christ. We tend to get complacent when things seem to be going well. We pray, but half-heartedly. We read the scriptures, but we shrug if we miss a day. We decide that we are just a little too tired to get up and go to church. It doesn’t matter, anyway, right? God doesn’t take attendance. But what if the call came in a time of apathy? Would you be ready for Christ?

The point of this text is not that we should stop living while we wait for Jesus to come again, but that we should always be prepared so that when He does come He’ll find faith on earth. Will He see faith in the crowds at Thursday night’s Black Friday sales? Will He find faith in the piles of Christmas presents? Will He see faithful people living faith-filled lives in the hustle and bustle of the season and in the holiday celebrations ahead of us this month?

I don’t think we need to stop the quest for a wonderful Christmas. Perhaps the problem is that we try too hard to separate our secular celebration from our Christian faith. We don’t keep Christ out of this season; I’m sure many of those people who will be flocking to the stores this weekend will celebrate in many faith filled ways. They will display a nativity in their home, maybe even on their lawn. They will go to church. They will sing Christmas carols. They will be generous to the charities that need help at this time of year. But are we thinking about Jesus when we buy the latest “R” rated movies or video games that are filled with sex, hatred and violence? Do we consider how our choices might impact the faith of our neighbor?

It is not easy living as a Christian in the world. This has been true of all time, not just this time. Can we really say that we are suffering from persecution just because someone doesn’t want us to say “Merry Christmas?” Jesus told us to expect this. Generations of Christians have faced death and beatings because they believed in Jesus. Even today there are countries that will deal with bombings in churches on Christmas day. Jesus warned us that the world would hate us. But He told us not to worry, He will be with us. On this first day of Advent, let us remember that He is there.

Advent is a dichotomy. It is a time when we wait for something we know has already come, and yet we also wait for something that we know is still coming. It is a time of looking to the past while looking to the future. We hope for something we know exists by faith but which has not yet been completely fulfilled. We wait for the baby in the manger even though we just celebrated the coming of Christ as King.

It can be confusing to hear texts from the final days of Jesus’ life as we prepare for His birth. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about seeing Christ as He was, as He is and as He will be all at once. When we think of Christ only in terms of the past, the present or the future, we do not live fully in His presence. If we stay in the past, we live as if there is nothing left to be done. We do not bother to keep watch or to wake up from our slumber. If we stay in the present, then we think what we do matters for our salvation. When we look only to the future, we think we have time to get ready and we put off the things we should do for the sake of Christ.

In other words, this first Sunday in Advent we are reminded that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As we live in this truth, we realize that our faith is not a past, present or future reality; it is all three. We die with Christ through our baptism. We live with Christ in this present reality, a reality that includes faith and grace and the hope of the promise to come. We look forward to the fulfillment of the promises: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

At the same time we are living in this world, and we have to find a way to our life with our faith. That means making choices that are God-pleasing, ready at a moment’s notice to receive Him. See, there will be a time when Christ comes again in glory, a time when we will see Christ the King come as victorious Lord of all. But Christ comes to us constantly in our daily living: in the request from a charity for food, in the paper ornaments on an Angel Tree at the mall with the wishes of children, a knock on the door from a neighbor who needs a friend to talk to. Christ comes to us in those busy crowds as we are fighting over the last hot toy or cheap television. He comes to us in that car that needs to merge on the highway and in the parking lot at the mall. Will we choose to be selfish or will we choose to be generous? Will we glorify God this Advent, or will we chase after our own needs and desires?

What if Jesus came tomorrow? What would He find on earth? Would He mind if He found you in line to buy the latest gaming system at Walmart? Quite honestly, I don’t think so. He would mind if you had abandoned a loved one to chase after a sale for something you don’t need. It is about attitude, and Advent is about making our hearts right before God so that we’ll be ready to receive our King, both as a baby in the manger and as the Victorious One at the end of all the ages.

Jesus said, “Then shall two man be in the field; one is taken, and one is left: two women shall be grinding at the mill; one is taken, and one is left.” This passage is interpreted in terms of the rapture, when Christ will come and take away the faithful. However, isn’t this also how it is on our every day journeys? Don’t some of us see Christ in our neighbors and others completely miss the opportunities to glorify God in our daily lives? Don’t some of us have faith and others just go about our days, step by step toward an unknown end? Don’t some of us live in darkness while others have seen the light?

Jesus calls us to be ready so that we’ll embrace every opportunity to share Him with others. Christmas can be about presents and parties and decorations, but it is also about sharing Christ with our neighbor. Isaiah says, “And many peoples shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob.” The many peoples to whom Isaiah refers are the Gentiles. The day will come when those who are not believers will come seeking the LORD and His Word. They will answer this call to go to hear God and to learn from His wisdom. Our relationship with God acts as a call to those who do not yet believe. They see our faith and wonder what it is that gives us that joy and peace that is visible in the way we live. Why are we a little happier waiting in the checkout lines? Why are we more willing to give bags of food at a time when our own purse strings are tightening? Why are we excited about going to a boring worship service with a bunch of hypocrites? What is it about Jesus that makes our life different?

Isaiah says, “O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of Jehovah.” We are that house of Jacob now. We are the witnesses of God’s light and love and mercy. While individual prayer and devotional time is a good thing, and is encouraged for everyone to help make their hectic lives a little more peaceful, we are sent into the world to share that peace with others. They will not see the Christ in Christmas if we are too busy to share Him with them.

The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of Jehovah.” Those who hear the Gospel message and experience the love and mercy of God are glad when they discover that which has been with them all along. God is not relying on us to fight the culture war with Facebook memes about keeping Christ in Christmas. God’s presence is in this world whether or not we spend all day with our families on Thanksgiving or boycott the stores that they open earlier and earlier each year. He’s relying on each of us as Christians to shine His light.

Paul writes to the Christians in Rome that salvation is nearer at that moment than when they first became believers. That promise is continued into our day. We know this is true, and yet we wonder. So much time has passed since Paul wrote his letters. It might be closer, but it is so easy to become apathetic. We’ve heard for two thousand years that each day brings us closer to the day when Christ will come again. But it is hard to wait anxiously for something that doesn’t seem to be coming. But we are called to wait patiently, to look forward to the birth of the King and remember that the King will come again. We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Until that day, we are called to live in Christ, who is as present now as He was then and as He will be in that day.

We dwell in a world full of darkness, even when it appears there is light. But the True Light dwells among us, too, and we are sent out into the world to live in faith and shine that light to others. Remember that Christ is with you always, whatever the days of Advent hold for you. These weeks will be filled with opportunities and choices. How will you answer His call? Will you keep your faith separate from your quest for the perfect Christmas or will you be ready at a moment’s notice to be generous with His grace? Christ came. Christ is here. Christ will come again. Let us live today remembering the past, embracing the present and looking forward to the future as we dwell in His presence always.

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