Sunday, December 3, 2006

First Sunday of Advent
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

As many of you are aware, I write another devotional called “A Word for Today.” This is a daily devotional that comes out five times a week – Monday through Friday – which I began writing more than seven years ago. In August I decided to tie the two devotionals together, using “A Word for Today” to prepare my thoughts on the four scriptures we use on Sunday. I begin on Thursday ten days out with the Old Testament lesson, then use the Psalm on Friday. Monday is for the Epistle and then Tuesday is for the Gospel text. Finally on Wednesday I find some connection or reference some other aspect of the day such as the season or a festival for a saint.

If you read just one of the five devotions you might think you could guess the direction of Midweek Oasis, but you would likely be mistaken. I don’t know on Thursday where the texts will take me. There are many times when I don’t even know by Wednesday morning where I will go. Some of the devotions might seem shocking or incomplete. Some of the insights might seem off track apart from the rest of the story. However, it is part of an ongoing struggle with the texts that is not complete until I sit down to write this devotion. It is a work in progress from the beginning until the end.

The same is true of our life in Christ. Becoming a Christian is not a once and done event. It can happen seemingly overnight, like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. However, Paul was not finished growing in Christ when the bandages came off his eyes. He had to learn, to develop, to mature in his Christian life. He had to come to a more complete understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Even after being a missionary for some time, having touched the lives of perhaps thousands of people, he considered himself incomplete. He was still a sinner in need of the Savior.

Yet, Paul’s writings at times seem somewhat arrogant and condescending. He sounds a bit ‘holier-than-thou’ when responding to the problems in some of the churches he established. He sounds jealous of anyone who seems to have taken a leadership role in the fellowship of believers. He thinks of himself as father to the congregations to which he ministered and he does not want anyone to lead them down a path away from the ideas and faith which he has given to them. It is no wonder that some folk do not like Paul, and yet much of our understanding of the Christian life comes from his writings and encouragement.

See, though he appears to be bigheaded about theology and doctrine, the reality is that Paul is very humble but passionate about Christ. It was never his goal to get people to follow him, but rather to give them Jesus. He was passionate about their souls; he sought to give them salvation. He went out to win the world to Christ. He wanted to give them the words of life that would change their lives and guarantee them the eternal life that comes from Christ.

December 3rd is the feast day for a man whose missionary work is second only to the Apostles. Francis Xavier was born in 1542 and was one of the founding members of the Jesuit community. Ignatius of Loyola sent him to India to share the Gospel of Christ and in just ten year’s time he touched the lives of thousands in numerous countries. I am not so sure that Francis would be an acceptable missionary in today’s world. We tend to tread very lightly around the faith of others, not wanting to be offensive or intolerant. We have even come to accept the secularization of Christmas, looking at it as just a small part of the holiday season. Many people will not even say “Merry Christmas” or call a decorated tree the “Christmas tree.”

I suppose these things do not matter that much, after all, what does a cut tree covered with colored balls have to do with the birth of Jesus anyway? Yet, Advent – the four weeks preceding Christmas – will be filled with preparations for that holiday we call Christmas. Though many of us will display some sort of nativity in our homes and we’ll go to church on Christmas Eve, most of our preparations will ignore the true reason for Advent. How many of us would tell our atheist neighbor that the story of Jesus – the Light of the World – is the reason they are hanging lights on their home. How many of us will bring up the topic of salvation in Jesus Christ, proclaiming forgiveness to those who believe they have no reason to be saved?

It is interesting that Francis went to a region that had once had a thriving Christian community. Thomas the Apostle had taken the Gospel to the Far East and there were many Christians in those countries. Unfortunately, there were not many priests and the priests had succumbed to the ways of the world. They had lost touch with God, and with their faith. They were greedy and living loose lives, unconcerned with living the life God had called them to live. Francis preached and the people gained a proper understanding of life in Christ. He had a passionate love for God and for mankind – a love that would not accept anything less than salvation in Christ Jesus for those he met. His deep love made him concerned for their soul and his faith manifested in a passionate evangelical ministry.

We have to tread so lightly these days that a missionary like Francis would probably be called home. We can’t suggest that faith in Christ is the only faith that will bring salvation or eternal life. We can’t tell the story of Jesus or we will be judged as intolerant. We will appear as Paul does to so many – arrogant and condescending. The story of Francis Xavier reads the same, and yet his ministry was vital and the Church was flourishing under his preaching. Francis did not set up food banks or collect clothes for the poor. He preached the Gospel and the world was changed one heart at a time.

One of the most important things we do throughout Advent is take care of those in need. We do some wonderful ministries at Christmastime, collecting gifts and food baskets for families who would not otherwise have any Christmas at all. We are very generous at Christmas, realizing that all we have should be shared, particularly as we recall the birth of Christ. This is in no way a bad thing. As a matter of fact, perhaps we should be doing even more. However, I’m not so sure we are truly being generous if we give a $10 game to an unknown child as we buy $200 video games for our kids. We give a meal without ever having to see the conditions in which they have to live. We can feed their tummies without once giving them the greatest gift of all – God’s word of life.

The trouble is that we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays that we lose touch with our God, perhaps much in the same way as those priests in sixteenth century Asia. Our lavish and greedy lives speak little about the love of Christ and our generosity speaks more about our guilt and our attempt to gain access to the Holy of Holies by virtue of our works.

It might seem strange that our Gospel for this first week of Advent has nothing to do with Christmas. We hear Jesus speaking of what is to come, warning about the Day of Judgment. As we run around in the stores that are overstocked with gift boxes for men, women and children, as we drive around our neighborhoods that are brightly decorated with festive lights, we aren’t thinking about judgment. We are humming “Jingle Bells” and looking forward to the parties to which we have been invited.

We also look forward to the birth of Christ, to the Nativity and the retelling of this beloved story. It is a wonderful time with a joyous spirit of love and mercy and grace. However, Christmas looks back at something that has already happened – the birth of Christ is history and though we look forward to it on our monthly calendars, there is no hope in the birth for us. Our hope rests in the second coming, that day when Christ will come to rule over heaven and earth for all time. We look forward to that great event even as we long to remember the child in the manger.

As we hear Jesus talking about the end time, we realize that the Day can come at any moment. We know in our hearts and in our heads that what is to come will be frightful, but that we have nothing to fear because we are firmly and completely beneficiaries of God’s promise. We heard the promise in today’s Old Testament passage – that a righteous branch would come out of Israel for the sake of the world, to execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days we will live in safety, not by our own power or strength, but by the power and strength of our God.

“In those days…” The descriptions that often follow words like these are filled with horrific things like plagues, destruction, famine and death. Jesus says, “Men will faint from fear…” We know in our hearts and minds that we will have nothing to fear, and yet the promise of God does not mean we will never suffer in this world. I know that I have experienced fear and worry when faced with inclement weather like hurricanes and tornadoes. I have been worried about family members who have been waiting for test results that could bring bad news. I have been concerned about financial difficulties and other troubles that we have faced as individuals or as a family. Though I can rest secure in the knowledge that God’s promises are true, I still experience fear, worry and even doubt.

Imagine how it will be in that Day when the powers of heaven are shaken. Will we be able to stand firm when we see the Son of Man coming in the clouds? Do we have that assurance? Have we done enough? Have we prepared enough? Are we sure we are ready?

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” I don’t know about you, but my calendar for the next four weeks is filled with things to do, whether it is some activity I’ve planned or whether I am acting as chauffeur for one of the kids, I am certainly busy enough. With the shopping and the preparations I still have to make for the coming holidays, I don’t have to worry about Jesus finding me idle. Yet, is my busy-ness really what Jesus wants to see? All these special events have something to do with the coming of Christmas, but do they really have anything to do with the coming of the Lord?

So, we begin Advent in darkness, with our eyes turned toward the coming Day of Judgment, reminding us that Christ’s coming will be accompanied by frightening things. We will not be able to stand if we are resting on our works, or on our efforts, or on our ideas. We will not be able to stand if we are standing with our own power and strength.

There are two things that Jesus will be looking for in that day – faith and love. Faith is the manifestation of our trust in God’s promises. We believe that God saves. Love is the outflowing of our faith into the world. We have been given the greatest gift – forgiveness – by the grace of God. We have the assurance of this gift because God has completed the work of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing we can do to change what God has done for us. We have heard the Word and the promise is ours.

However, there are many who have not yet heard this word of promise. They might have seen the nativities for sale in the Dollar Store and read the children’s books about the birth of Jesus, but they have not experienced the life-giving Word of salvation spoken into their lives. They haven’t heard it because we are afraid. They haven’t heard it because we want to be tolerant. They haven’t heard it because we do not want to offend them or their faith. We don’t want to appear arrogant or condescending.

So we focus all our attention on serving their physical needs, giving them food for their tummies and possessions to make them feel better about themselves. We fill the food banks with canned goods and collect toys to make this a happy Christmas. Yet, we do not give them the greatest gift of all – the Word of God that brings faith and hope and true joy. We keep busy with our projects and activities, but we hesitate when it comes to sharing our faith.

The people of Thessalonica had been visited by a man named Paul. He was in that town for only a matter of weeks when some of his detractors showed up and began to cause trouble. He had the time to begin a church, to build up a congregation and teach them a little about living in the new faith they had received. They were new Christians, but passionate about what they had heard. They had the Holy Spirit in their hearts and just enough to stand firm. Paul was chased away to another town, but he never stopped worrying about his fledgling Christian church in Thessalonica.

He sent Timothy to visit, to find out how they were doing. The Jews were trying to halt the spread of the Gospel, so they sent eloquent speakers and intelligent teachers who preached against the doctrine being established by Paul’s ministry. It would have been quite understandable if the church at Thessalonica had fallen apart against such harassment. However, Timothy found that the Christians were standing firm. They still had faith and they still loved one another. It was a work in progress – Paul hoped to return to help continue the growth and bring the church in that city to maturity. But Paul found something about which to rejoice – they still believed. They had not lost touch with the God they loved or the Gospel that saves.

St. Francis Xavier might not be a welcome missionary in our churches today – his preaching does not fit into the social agenda that we have established as our mission. He was politically incorrect, offensive and intolerant. Yet, as he preached the people heard the Gospel. Thousands were saved who might have continued to live according to the hope of their own strength and power. They would not have the assurance of living in God’s promises. God’s Word will never pass away, even as the earth crumbles around us. Though we might experience fear and worry as the world crumbles around us, we might be frightened by the darkness that surrounds us, we can rest in the hope of the coming – not only of the baby in the manger, but also in the Son of Man who will come in the clouds with power and great glory.

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 thirsting soul.

Only Christ can fulfill that need and we are called to share the Cup – Christ Jesus – with the world, even if it means appearing arrogant and condescending, offensive and intolerant. The reality is that the Gospel of Christ makes us humble because we know we are sinners in need of a Savior. The gift we have been given is so valuable that it must be shared with all. That gift can be shared not with a cup of water, but only with the life-giving Word of God – His mercy and forgiveness – as we share our faith with others. Thanks be to God.

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