First Sunday of Advent
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you; and the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you, to the end he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
It has begun: the race for Christmas is in full swing. Of course, there have been Christmas decorations in the stores for months and some stores began Black Friday sales weeks ago, but now that Thanksgiving is over it is time to focus on the next holiday. We spent the weekend decorating much of the outside of our house and organizing the inside. I have a pile of boxes that need to be emptied and displays to be set. In the next week I will be preparing food for a party we are hosting next weekend. It is a hectic time, a time for running around and doing stuff.
I suppose that’s why Advent has become a time of preparation. Advent devotionals focus on preparing our hearts for the coming of the King. There have been times in history when Advent was a mini Lent, a time for repentance and preparation to enter the Church at Christmas. We are encouraged to clear our minds, repent and meditate, do good works for others. I chose an Advent devotional each year, light my Advent candles and find more time for prayer. These are good things, but this focus on preparation makes Advent a time of focus on ourselves, on our human works.
This quote is from an article I recently read, “The result? Instead of a joyous proclamation in preaching, teaching, and song of the coming of God to us, listeners are urged to focus on themselves, prepare, wait, and plead for God to come (as if that were somehow in question). Two related moves enhance this change in focus. One is to make eschatology the major focus; the other seeks to return to the medieval practice of making Advent a parallel to Lent, a penitential season in which the emphasis is on our works, repentance chief among them. Between the admonitions to prepare or wait for Christ’s coming at Christmas, the tones of a penitential season, and the contemplations of the last judgment, Advent has become dreary and misses the joyousness of Christ coming to us now.”
In the past, the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent focused on the joy of the coming of Christ in Triumph on Palm Sunday. Now we look to the end times, continuing the mood of the past few weeks. So, we think about Christ as He is born and Christ when He will come again, but we lose touch with Christ as He is with us today. The article went on to explain how the sixteenth century reformers like Martin Luther chose to focus on the three distinct advents (comings) of Christ and what God is doing in each of them. There is a place for preparation and repentance for the individual in this sacred time of the Church year, but perhaps we should consider what our faith would look like if we focused more on the proclamation that the coming of Christ has nothing to do with human works. Jesus is coming; there is nothing we can do to stop Him in the past, in the present or in the future. So instead of the foreboding mood that comes from the fear of what will happen in the future or the somber preparation and repentance to receive the King in the manger, Advent is a time for joy and hope because Christ comes to us now in His Word, shaping us to be the people He has created and redeemed us to be.
In other words, we are often too busy preparing ourselves for the coming of the King that we forget that He is already in our midst. Jesus Christ comes to us like a thief in the night, when we aren’t ready, surprising us with His grace and mercy and love. Instead of a time of fear and worry, we are relieved and consoled by the reality that there is nothing we can accomplish to make Him come.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with God. They walked together and talked. They had a personal, intimate relationship with one another and with their Creator. They were naked and it did not matter. When the serpent deceived them and they ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, things changed dramatically. The Bible tells us that their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked so they covered themselves with fig leaves and hid in the garden. They were afraid to be seen by God.
They were indeed physically naked since God had not given them clothing to wear and their response showed that they were ashamed of their physical nakedness. Yet, that was just a symptom of the greater problem that they faced. When their eyes were opened, they could see that their disobedient actions were disrespectful to their Creator and that they were not worthy to be in His presence. Their shame was not only about their naked bodies, but also about their fear to be in the presence of God. What would He do in response to their disobedience? He had warned them that eating the tree would mean death and they did not believe His words. No wonder they were afraid and hid from His presence.
That’s what shame does to us. We know that the deep secrets of our souls are exposed and we fear the recompense that will come. So, we hide. We hide behind emotion such as arrogance or pride. We hide behind blame by passing the fault to others. We hide physically by breaking relationships or becoming separated from society. We cover ourselves with clothes like the fig leaves - self-righteousness and excuses - clothes that don’t last or really cover the reason for our shame.
The truth that is hidden in our hearts and our souls is often revealed and we are exposed to the world. It is easy for our enemies to use our imperfection against us. They take our sin and put it on display in order to attack our credibility. I did a web search on the word “shame” and I came up with a number of “Hall of Shame” listings. These are places where people have taken the stupidity, arrogance or sin of others and revealed it for all to see. This is done in the hope that it will cause the recipient of such an award to go away, to stop doing their work, to slink away in shame never to be seen again. But, we in Christ know a better way to deal with our shame. We face it, repent of our sin, ask forgiveness and trust that God will be faithful to His promises.
Life in Christ does not mean that the hidden things of our hearts and souls will never be revealed. As a matter of fact, in Christ is it especially important that they are exposed and dealt with through mercy and grace. Though our sins are exposed, we will not be put to shame because we know that through Jesus Christ our imperfection is forgiven and our infirmity is healed. We do not have to go into hiding as they did in the Garden of Eden, we need only speak the truth of our hearts before God and ask Him to be gracious and pardon our sin.
The psalmist writes, “My God, I have trusted in you. Don’t let me be shamed. Don’t let my enemies triumph over me. Yes, no one who waits for you shall be shamed. They shall be shamed who deal treacherously without cause.” In Christ we already dwell in the eternal presence of God and we have nothing to fear.
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. No matter what we do, however, we are reminded that the promise has already been fulfilled. Though the images in the Gospel lesson are frightening, we are reminded that God is near when we see the chaos in the world around us.
It is hard to imagine that God’s promises are being fulfilled even now in places where bad things are happening. As we wait for the coming of our Savior and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises, we see that the world hasn’t changed at all, even after two thousand years. Jeremiah spoke of those days when everything will be made right, and we connect that promise to the birth of Christ. Yet, we know that even as He has fulfilled the promise, the work isn’t complete. The work isn’t complete, so we try to fulfill the promises in our own ways, by our own strength and for our own purpose. We seek fulfillment of God’s promises through human strength, but we know that the strength of men is not trustworthy. This is why God has always called His people to trust in Him. The psalmist answers our human tendency away from God with words we should take to heart: “O my God, in thee have I trusted.”
Our message for today is to remember that God has fulfilled His promises and He will fulfill them. While we wait, while we hope, we are called to live in trust, knowing that God has done and continues to do His work in this world. He is the Light and it is only the Light that can overcome the darkness. We should rejoice if it seems particularly dark because it is now that we are being called to shine so that others will see and hear and believe. God is about to enter the world and do something amazing. He’s about to send His Son to overcome the darkness. But even as we wait for the Son to be born and the King to return, we know that the Light already shines.
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.
Luke writes, “But when these things begin to happen, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near.” We must be aware that we risk being too busy doing human works in preparation for the coming of the King; our focus on us can make us miss Him. This is not about making Christmas simpler as we so often discuss at the beginning of Advent. This isn’t even about keeping Christ in Christmas. This is about recognizing that our redemption is indeed near in the here and now.
Jesus is looking for two things from us: 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. If all they see is Christians working hard to prepare for the coming of the Christ, they’ll think they have to earn His love and mercy. They will never experience the forgiveness we have by God’s mercy or become right with God by His grace, especially if they think there is no way for them to accomplish what they think they have to do to earn it. They might do good things, but if they don’t learn that the only way to heaven is by the grace of God, then they’ll never enter through those pearly gates.
A man died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates. St. Peter said, “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 will 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!”
This is Good News. We will be busy preparing for Christmas with decorations, baking, writing cards, shopping, and partying. We’ll add to that some spiritual disciplines of Advent devotionals, service projects, prayer and extra worship. This is all wonderful, but let’s remember that none of this, no matter how much an impact our works have on the world, they will never change what God has already done. 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 the poor is honorable and gracious, 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.
Timothy took a wonderful report to Paul. The Thessalonians were living faithful lives, for which Paul was thankful to God. They had not lost touch with their Lord, though as with all our lives of faith he was concerned for their future well being. He prayed that the Lord would make their love increase and overflow for one another and strengthen them as they waited for Jesus to come.
They were waiting just like we wait during Advent. Paul wrote to encourage them, to thank God for their faith and to ask Him to continue His work in their lives. As we wait for Christmas, and for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, God transforms us daily drawing us deeper and deeper into the relationship with Him. So as we begin this Advent season, let’s do so with joy and hope, knowing that Jesus comes in three distinct ways. He came as the Son in the manger. He will come as the King at the End of Days. And He comes to us daily in His word and in His promise so that we’ll shine the light of the Good News with the world. So, let’s not just wait for Him as He came in the past or will come in the future, but live as He comes to us in the present and celebrate His grace daily.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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