First Sunday of Advent
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Guide me in thy truth, and teach me; For thou art the God of my salvation; For thee do I wait all the day.
Have you ever noticed that a lamp appears brighter at night than it does during the day? It isn't that the lamp is brighter, but that the light from that lamp is diminished by the light that surrounds it. The lamp overcomes darkness much better than other light.
I suppose that's why faith and the Gospel stand out so much more clearly when the world is in chaos than it does when everything is peaceful. See, we don't really think about God so much when things are going well around us. We might pray and worship and offer thanks, but we don't fall on our knees in hopeful expectation of God's grace because we are comfortable. We don't need God and so He is set aside as we live our happy life. When we face a crisis, however, we see our need for Him ever more strongly and turn to Him in desperate prayer and expectation. It is not that Christ is a softer light in those good times of our life, but His light does not seem quite as bright for us as it does in those times when we need Him.
Last week we celebrated Christ the King Sunday, and we looked forward to the time when there will be no need for the sun or for the moon or for the stars because Jesus Christ will be the eternal lamp that will provide all the light we need. There will also be no darkness because the victory over death and darkness will be complete. This week we begin a new church year and we return to the reality: our world is filled with darkness.
The darkness has certainly existed through the history of the world; the world is constantly in flux and goes from bright moments of hope and peace to times filled with hatred and war. There is even a period of time specifically called the Dark Ages. That was an age when the great civilizations were in the decline and were replaced by cultures that were less refined. In England the Roman culture was replaced by the Saxons. Stone houses and advanced technology were replaced by grass huts and barbaric practices. It is called the dark ages also because the history is dark. The great civilizations had forms of writing, education, art which depicted life in that day. You can still visit the Roman baths and see the great mosaics they laid, but the Saxon huts are little more than an outline in the dust and a theory of a historian.
It was also a time of darkness in faith. The Romans had begun the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, but much was lost during those dark ages. The powerful worshipped other gods, believed in magic and superstition. And yet it was through the darkness of those days that the Light of Christ began to burn more brightly. Some of the greatest saints, like Boniface in the Frankish empire shaped Christianity which grew into greatness for a time. It peaks and it wanes because we become apathetic at the peaks and are humbled into desperate need when it wanes. That's when the Light shines brightest.
So, as we begin Advent in darkness of a reminder of our life without Christ. We have a tradition in my church and in my family of an Advent wreath. This is a wreath made with five candles, one for each Sunday of Advent and then for Christmas. We light a candle each Sunday and as we move through the season of preparation the light becomes brighter and brighter. That's how it is in our texts, too. We begin with a promise, watch as God prepares the world for the coming of our Lord and then end with the fulfillment of the promise: Jesus Christ is born. The true Light comes into the world.
Jeremiah tells about the promise, "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." What is righteousness? It is a right relationship with God. Christ came to fulfill this promise and to restore our relationship with God. What did we need to be saved from? Ourselves, our self-centered desire to be in control, to do things our way. It is this very desire that set us apart from our Creator. It is this very attitude that leads us into the darkness. 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. It is what forced them out of the Garden into the world where darkness would reign. Every generation of humans since the days of Adam and Eve have continued to live in this rebellion and have known the experience of darkness without God.
Yet, God knew how to take care of this problem and planned for our salvation long before we were born. In the beginning He was already voicing the promise that one day He would restore our relationship with Him. The patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets all pointed toward the day when that would be fulfilled. When God's people lost sight of Him because they were too comfortable and apathetic, He reminded them, "I will send a Messiah." He shined the light to prepare them for the Light that would save them forever.
This passage from Jeremiah is repeated from earlier in Jeremiah. In chapter 23, Jeremiah talks specifically of the One who will come. He will be the King; He will be called "Jehovah our righteousness." In this passage, however, Jeremiah refers to the people of God. Israel will be called "Jehovah our righteousness." His people will be identified with the One who will be their Savior, they will become part of His Kingdom, and they will reign with Him. As the relationship between God and His people is restored, they will become one with Him in heart, soul and spirit.
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. I am certainly busy enough; I don't have to worry about Jesus finding me idle. Yet, is my busy-ness really what Jesus wants to see? 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.
But our tendency is always toward darkness, I suppose that's why the Light shines so brightly there. See, Jesus is waiting for us in our times of struggle to remind us of His Grace. We have Jesus always, but His light does not seem to shine so brightly in our lives when everything is good. We don't need Him when the world is bright around us and we lose sight of Him. Our comfort and our apathy make us turn away until we are brought to our knees in humble obedience again.
Righteousness, at least in the biblical sense, has little to do with morality; if it did then there world be no point to the Advent season we are about to enter. There would be no point for Christmas or Easter, either. There would not even be a point for Jesus to be born or to die. If we are saved by our good works, then there is no point to the Church or faith or witnessing to the grace and mercy of God. If you are good enough, 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. It is during those times when we dwell in comfort that we begin to think that we are good enough. That's why we lose sight of our God.
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 based on their own works. 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.
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. We aren't thinking about judgment as we prepare for Christmas. We see the stores filled with merchandise to buy as the perfect gift and houses in our neighborhoods decorated with lights. 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 forever. 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 that a righteous branch would come out of Israel for the sake of the world in the Old Testament lesson, and that He will come 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..." That preface is often followed by descriptions of 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. God's promise does not mean that we will never see darkness. I have also been so comfortable in my bright world that I've lost sight of the Light.
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 God is near when we see the chaos in the world around us. It seems like now is the time, but hasn't it been that way in every generation since Christ? Have we not all 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 have ever been; yet we will not know the day until it arrives. We simply wait and wonder in hopeful expectation.
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. Paul's detractors 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.
It was the chaos of those detractors that made the light even brighter for those early Christians; they looked to the One who was their salvation and their righteousness. They shined the Light of Christ through their faith and their love for one another. They kept their eyes on Christ Jesus even though the world was fighting against their faith.
Many Christians are crying "Woe to me" because it seems as if the world has become dark and chaotic, fighting against our Lord Jesus Christ. Our detractors today are different than Paul's, but we are reminded that we aren't the first Christians to face opposition. Despite the chaos, they held firmly to their faith and loved one another. They shined the light. This is what we are called to do.
It is easy to want to fight those who try to hurt us, but the light shines more brightly in darkness. Now is the perfect time to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the dangers of this world threaten our lives, we are called to a life of humble submission to God. He is in control and He knows what He is doing. We don't need to fight the darkness, we simply need to shine the Light. We do so by being faithful and faith-filled, loving one another and our neighbors, walking in hope and peace. We are waiting for the coming of our Lord, not only at Christmas, but for eternity. Let us be busy this season preparing our hearts for His coming, humbly serving Him with joy. As you shine the Light into the world others will see and will turn from the darkness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
It is hard to imagine that God's promises are being fulfilled even now in places where children are recruited to wear bombs on their chests that blow up marketplaces and kill innocent people. 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."
The psalmist says "wait for" several times in today's psalm. New International Version translates that phrase "hope." Hope is waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. But waiting is difficult. How long do you have to wait? There are those who live anxiously for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. They see the signs and they believe that the time has come. Throughout history there have always been those who have given up the world in the expectation that the time is urgent. They have cried out to the world, "The time is NOW!" certain that they have understood the signs. Yet the times pass, and nothing happens. They either grow impatient or they lose interest.
But 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 these days 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. For now we have to settle for the Light we celebrate at Christmastime, born and laid in a manger. But on this First Sunday of Advent, let's take some time to look to our future and the Eternal Light that will shine, overcoming all darkness forever.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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