Sunday, December 2, 2007

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

Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of Jehovah from Jerusalem.

The Christmas season is well under way. It seems like it gets earlier every year. I hear Christmas music playing in the background at one store a week before Thanksgiving. The shelves were stocked with Christmas decorations and gift ideas as soon as Halloween was over. The newspaper on Thanksgiving Day was filled with advertisements for those Black Friday deals that had half the population of our city waiting in line at the electronics stores. The malls are decorated with tinsel and glitter and Santa Claus is waiting to hear all the children’s wish lists.

It is a busy time. Houses are beginning to light up with Christmas decorations and calendars are filling up with parties. There are gifts to buy, cookies to bake and cards to write. We have a million things to accomplish and it seems like we do not have enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. Despite our worry and impatience everything comes together in the end and we have a delightful holiday.

It is on this first Sunday of Advent that we generally remind everyone 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.

Though it seems to be getting harder to notice Christmas in the secular holiday realms, it is still there. The Christmas music playing on the speakers in the stores tell the story of Jesus’ birth. I imagine most Christians have some sort of Nativity display in their homes. Even television shows often focus on the religious aspect of this season at least once during December. We will be getting Christmas cards in the mail soon, many of which have pictures of the wise men or the Nativity.

So, while we are challenging each other to give time to God, most of us are thinking that we already do pretty well at that during this season. Not only are we taking the time to attend worship regularly, we are also more generous with our resources. Those who set aside a few moments to read a devotional and to consider the texts for Sunday are probably more patient in the crowds, more likely to share a word of good cheer with a cashier. So, while it is always good to encourage one another to prayer and devotional time, I’m not going to do that this year, because I trust that most of you are already doing so.

What I am going to suggest is a challenge. The subtle reminders in the secular world give us a moment in the hectic pace of our holiday preparations to reflect on the reason and purpose for it all. Though there are people in the world for whom faith has no place in the holidays, I expect that almost everyone at some point in the next month will hear the name of Jesus and will wonder about Him for a moment, even those for whom Christianity is an outrage. For those of us who believe, those subtle reminders should be more than background music or cards tossed on a pile with barely a peak.

When we experience one of those subtle reminders of the season, how can we make it less subtle? Can we sing along with the music as we do our Christmas shopping? How about having a luncheon to share favorite Christmas cards with friends? As we pass a display of the Nativity we can openly and freely reflect on the joy and peace that comes from our knowledge of what it means. You never know when doing something like this might just become a divine appointment with someone who needs to know more about Jesus as His coming approaches.

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 devotional time is a good thing, and is encouraged for everyone to help make their hectic lives a little more peaceful, our lives are perhaps the only devotional time the world will get. They will barely hear the music, see the cards or experience the birth if we do not help bring it to light.

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 before their eyes. God’s presence is in this world whether or not we can have a Nativity on the front lawn of city hall, but we spend so much time fighting over these symbols that we forget we are God’s witnesses. Now, I have grumbled over the rejection of Christian things in this season. However, God is not relying on City Hall to tell the Christmas story. He’s relying on each Christian to shine His light.

There is a petitionary prayer in today’s psalm. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: They shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, And prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. For the sake of the house of Jehovah our God I will seek thy good.” This prayer for peace is for Jerusalem, more specifically for the Temple. Yet, the heart that loves God is now His temple. That is where God dwells. So, the prayer is for peace within the hearts and lives of those who love the LORD.

What is peace? This is a particularly difficult question in our age when it seems like there is always a enemy waiting to war with us, whether it is a neighbor who is angry about a loud party or a nation who desires more territory. However hard we work for peace between peoples, that type of peace will never be lasting. Peace comes from God. We can work and negotiate for a peace settlement between warring nations, but there will soon be a new war. Our Christmas wish that there be peace on earth is admirable, but our task as Christians is to share the peace of God with the world.

Jesus tells us that we will not know the hour of the coming of the Son of Man. In this Gospel lesson we are not waiting for the birth of a baby in a manger, we are waiting for the coming of the Judge and King. Jesus is calling us to be prepared. For the Christian, this means being aware of the presence of God in the every day. Jesus tells us that the people in Noah’s day were so caught up in the ordinary that they missed the extraordinary. Most of the people in Bethlehem when Jesus was born were so caught up in the ordinary that they missed the extraordinary. We are often so caught up in the ordinary preparations for Christmas that we miss those extraordinary moments when God’s grace slips into the world.

So we are called to wait, to wonder, to hope and to dwell in the peace of God. We are called to be ready, we do not know the time when He will come again. We only know that He has promised to come and when He comes the nations of the earth will be righteously judged. As we wait we trust in God. As we wonder, we see His faithfulness in the midst of our unfaithfulness.

How hard it must have been for those first believers. The language makes it sound as if the return of Christ was imminent. For those Christians, they must have thought that they would see Him again in their lifetime. But it has been nearly two thousand years since Jesus ascended into heaven. How disappointing it must have been for those early Christians whose lives were changed by the Gospel and the hope for His coming. Yet, the Church has lived on. In our modern age, as in every age, people are still yearning for the coming of Christ.

Perhaps we should be looking at the imminence of His coming not in terms of earthly time, but in terms of God’s time. The scriptures tell us that for God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are a day. He is not limited by time like us. What has happened then is happening now and will happen in the future. The salvation of Christ is given at the cross to all who believe, but it is also given in this day and in the final day. Christ is near in time, not because the Day of Judgment will be today or tomorrow, but because everything that He does is timeless.

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 in terms of 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, 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, going with Him to the cross. 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.

Paul calls us to live godly lives in Christ while we wait. That does not just mean taking time during Advent to attend worship more often or spend time in prayer and devotional study. It means living as if now is the moment that Christ is coming. It is. He comes every time we share the Gospel with a stranger in word and deed. He comes every time we shine the light of God’s love in the world. He comes every time we call our neighbor to come to the house of the LORD, welcoming them to dwell in the peace that comes from Him and Him alone.

During this Advent, we are called to live in Christ, keeping from deeds of darkness. The people in Noah’s day had no idea what was to come, they kept living as if they were safe from the judgment of God. The same is true of all those who are wandering through this Christmas season as if it is only a time of presents and parties. It will also happen to all those who do not prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus in His glory, for this will be a day of judgment for those who continue to walk in the darkness.

It is up to us to live as if today were that day, to share the love of Christ with the world so that they might see and come to dwell in the house of the LORD. It will be a day of joy and peace for those of us who have died with Christ and live with Him in faith. Is this not the greatest joy and the foundation of true peace? Is this not something we should want to share with the world? Let us live this Advent aware of the subtle reminders of God’s presence in this world so that others might catch a glimpse and wonder what it is all about.

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