First Sunday in Advent
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
The meek will he guide in justice; And the meek will he teach his way.
What is righteousness? Most of the definitions I came across in my research juxtapose righteousness with morality: being righteous means being a good person who does what is right. And so, we then ask, what is morality? What does it mean to be moral? The definitions indicate that morality is about following the rules. A moral person is one who exhibits good behavior; an immoral person is one who exhibits bad behavior.
This idea of righteousness has led many people to believe that heaven is filled with good and moral people. How many of us have heard (and said) at a funeral, “She was such a good person, surely she must be in heaven?” I would not suggest that someone who left an upright life is burning in hell, but is goodness and respectable behavior what gets us into heaven? Will I have the keys to the pearly gates because I fed the poor and took care of my neighbor?
But is that really what gets us into heaven?
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. St. Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.” “That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that's worth three points!” “Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.” “Terrific!” says St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.” “One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says. “TWO POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!” “Come on in!”
If righteousness, at least in the biblical sense, has to do with morality, then there’s no point the season we are about to enter: Advent. There’s no point for Christmas or Easter. There’s no point for Jesus to be born or to die. If we are saved by our good works, then there’s no point to the Church or faith or witnessing to the grace and mercy of God. If you are good enough to get those hundred points, then God is not necessary, and neither is Jesus. But we know that we aren’t good enough to get a hundred points. We don’t have keys that will unlock the pearly gates.
As a matter of fact, the images in today’s Gospel passage should have us cringing in fear. After all, isn’t it said whenever the earth suffers one of those catastrophic events that it is a sign from heaven? After every hurricane or blizzard, flood or earthquake, someone claims that they’ve had a vision from God that the people need to repent and change. God has been known to send plagues of locusts and floods to discipline His people, but can we really judge whether or not a tornado was an act of God meant to send a message to someone? Is the family that lost their house more sinful than their neighbor whose house was spared? These are the inevitable questions when we claim morality is equal to righteousness and lay that understanding beside the scriptural texts.
Who will we be on that glorious day when Christ comes again? Will we be among those fainting in fear or will we look to the heavens toward our redemption? If we base our salvation on our works, we should be fainting in fear, because nothing we do is good enough to overcome our sinfulness. But if we look to Christ, then we understand what the man in the story did not: it is God who will save us. And that’s what Advent is all about. God is about to enter the world and do something amazing. He’s about to send His Son to be our righteousness.
God is not looking for the good and upright. He’s looking for the humble. He’s not looking for those who think themselves righteous—the self-righteous—based on their own works rather than on God’s grace. God is looking for the people who are teachable, who will learn and grow and be changed by His Word. He is looking for those who by faith are willing to wait and watch and hope for the fulfillment of His promises.
Jeremiah says, “In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely; and this is the name whereby she shall be called: Jehovah our righteousness.” This righteousness is not a moral rightness, but rather a right relationship with God. Christ came to fulfill this promise and restore our relationship with God. What did we need to be saved from? We need to be saved from ourselves, our self-centered desire to be in control and do things our own way. It is this very desire that set us apart from our Creator. Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God. This willful disobedience against God’s Word is sin; it is what separated them from God. Everyone since Adam and Eve participate in this rebellion. We are sinners in need of a Savior.
During Advent the humble wait for Him. We seek His guidance. We ask His forgiveness. We listen to His truth and walk in His paths. We look to heaven to save us. Though the images in the Gospel lesson are frightening, we are reminded that it is when we see those signs that God is near.
It seems like now is the time, but then hasn't it been that way for generations? Have we not seen signs in the heavens and on the earth? Even in this day, as we wait once again for the coming of our Lord as a child in a manger, we see those signs throughout the world. We are closer now than we ever has been; yet we will not know the day until it arrives. We simply wait and wonder in hopeful expectation.
Though we are surely sinners in need of a Savior, unable to earn our way into heaven, there is no reason for us to go about life with no concern for righteousness. While our salvation is not dependent on our good works or behavior, God has called us out of the darkness of the world to live in His light. During Advent we wait for the Christ child, but we know He has already come. We live now in the New Covenant, the one promised by God. Yet, even still, Jesus reminds us to take heed of ourselves. Will we be able to look to Christ at that moment if we are living carelessly, drunken and anxious? Will be so trapped in our sinful ways that we’ll reject Him when He comes?
In the end we have only one thing on which we can rest. The psalmist writes, “O my God, in you I trust.” Our good works are wonderful works. Whatever our motives, feeding the hungry and clothing to poor is an honorable thing to do, whether it is now at the holidays or throughout the year. However, full bellies and warm bodies are not eternal. The body will hunger again and the clothes will fade. The Word of God lasts forever. It is true and it is real. The pagans and heathens can feed a hungry belly, but they will never feed a starving soul. Only Christ can fulfill our deepest needs.
How will you humble yourself during Advent, to prepare for His coming both on Christmas and on that Day which will come? Will you spend time in prayer, in the scriptures? Will you do good works for others? Will you share your blessings and witness to the power of God? The days are coming, and are indeed here, when the Kingdom of God is near. The signs are out there, are you watchful and ready?
Jesus will be looking for two things that day: faith and love. Faith is the manifestation of our trust in God’s promises: we believe that God saves. Love is the outpouring of our faith into the world. The great gift of Christmas is the forgiveness He came to give, and we can be assured that God will be faithful. After all, heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s words will not. There is nothing we can do to change what God has done for us, good or bad. We have heard the Word and the promise is ours.
However, there are many who have not yet heard this word of promise. They see our Christmas celebrations and displays and think they understand, but if they do not recognize their own sinfulness they will never see the reason for it all. They will never experience the forgiveness we have by God’s mercy or become right with God by His grace. They might live good and upright lives, appear to be headed for heaven, but if they cannot say, “only by the grace of God,” then they’ll never enter through those pearly gates.
We wait for four weeks for Christ to come as a baby, but what if He came in power and glory today? Would you be ready? But even more importantly, is your neighbor ready? Now is the time to witness to the reason for the story we share during this season. We aren’t just waiting a baby in a manger; we are waiting for the coming Christ who lived, died and rose again for our sake. We are waiting for ‘those days to come’ when Christ will finally return to fulfill all God’s promises. The signs are there. The figs are on the fig trees. The Kingdom of God is near.
Jesus told His disciples that “this generation will not pass away, till all things be accomplished.” Was Jesus wrong when He said that? After all, the people who followed Jesus when He spoke those words are long dead. So was Jesus speaking to our generation, or a future generation? We have been waiting nearly two thousand years for Christ to return. And I have to admit that sometimes I’m tired of waiting. But just as Baby Jesus came at the right time, we are called to trust that He will come in power and glory at the right time, God’s time. Whether it is today or a thousand years doesn’t matter, for God’s patience means salvation for those who have yet to hear His Word.
So, for today let us live according to His word, clothed in His righteousness, following the path He has laid out for us in this time and place. It is so much easy to accept that someone is good, that they’ve lived a righteous life. It is certainly more comforting to think that those who have passed will be in heaven because they’ve done good works. But in this first week of Advent we are reminded that it isn’t our righteousness that marks us for entry through the pearly gates, it is Christ’s. How many points would St. Peter give you for your good works? What about your neighbor?
Thankfully, we don’t need to list our good works to get into heaven because Christ has done it for us. Will you share this Good News with your neighbor? While we wait, God will guide us to do what is right and teach us His way so that the whole world will experience His grace and be saved.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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