A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
First Sunday in Advent – November 28, 2004
Text: Romans 13:11-14
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy New Year! Although it’s yet a few weeks on your calendar before 2005 arrives, even so we begin the new year in the church this morning as we enter the season of Advent. The blue paraments are out, the wreath of candles is glowing before us, and we look ahead in excitement and anticipation – our Lord is coming to us!
It is during the four weeks of Advent that we get the most strange and wonderful mixture of readings. Some we recognize as familiar and comforting bits of scripture, the words of the Bible that lead up to Jesus’ birth in a Bethlehem stable. There are visions of peace and harmony, nations turning their war-weapons into tools for farming the earth. There are the prediction of the strong branch of Jesse, and the prophecies of John the Baptist along his Jordan River. We hear the prediction of Emmanuel – God With Us – and finally read of his coming into this world, the living, growing child in the girl Mary’s belly, about God in the flesh. All these beloved scriptures point us towards the great holy day of Christmas just one month’s time from now, and remind us that our Lord did indeed come to us as a little baby boy, glistening and beautiful that long-ago night.
But in among the well-thumbed pages of the pre-Christmas story, we also discover these strange, apocalyptic passages on the Advent calendar. They leave us off balance – we’re looking to a cozy holiday celebration, and they’re pointing toward the end of the world!
But Advent season is the church’s time of longing and gazing into the future. It is the time when we cry out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” Even as we wait in growing excitement for each new candle to be lit, for the final candle-filled celebration of his birth on Christmas, the church looks forward to a future when our Lord will return to us and make all things new. Our prayer for Jesus’ coming is not merely a remembrance of his Nativity, but our hope-filled anticipation of his coming in glory on the last day. We pray for both simultaneously – it is impossible to pray for one without the other.
The church’s prayer has always been “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” It’s the heartbeat of our lives, the rhythm we live by, that puts us in motion.
It’s always seemed to me that the church goes to one of two extremes when it comes to Christ’s second coming to us. On the one hand, there are those of us who obsess on it, turning it over and over in our grubby hands until we’ve covered the beautiful promise with layers of dirt and grime. On the other hand, there are many of us – perhaps most of us in this congregation – who choose to put it away in some shoebox, not thinking of it or remembering that our Easter faith did not end on Easter Day! Jesus speaks a warning to each group this morning, and Paul offers us another way – a third path that puts our Advent hope in its proper role.
We’re all familiar with members of the first group of Christians, the ones who can’t seem to put down the apocalypse. They tend to be an outgoing bunch, good on the radio or television set, eager to write books or tracts to get the word out about the coming end of the world. They have seized upon the Bible’s clear message – that Jesus is surely returning – with a fanatic’s grip, and in their fervor they claim to have worked out the when’s, where’s, and how’s of the blessed Return. Their honest sense of urgency gets corrupted by their own arrogance in assuming they know the mind of God, and time after time these false prophets of Armageddon come up short when God’s does not act according to their plans and predictions.
Did you know that the end of the world has been predicted by Christians at least 200 different times? Every ten years or so, some follower of Jesus gets carried away in his prayer for the Lord’s return, and yet another wrong prediction is made. I’ve put a link on my web site to a page that lists 220 different predictions like this – they’re interesting, but to all of these would-be prophets, Jesus has the same words to speak: “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
No one knows! These predicters of the end are claiming knowledge that not even Jesus himself possesses – knowledge that belongs to God the Father alone. Each time some faithful but misguided kook offers a timeline for the end of the world that comes and goes without incident, the faith of many is tested, perhaps to the breaking point. Their Christian hope gets placed on a date, a time, rather than on a promise – Christ is coming, though no one knows the day! Time and effort are wasted that could have been spent sharing the good news and tending to the neediest of Christ’s brothers and sisters. Jesus would not have us live obsessing about when precisely he will return, but neglecting the work we have to do right now!
This is not the trouble for many of us here today, I suspect. We Lutherans tend not to get caught up in the doomsayers’ predictions. We don’t worry much about the end of the world; we laugh off the predictions of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. But all too often we fall in the opposite ditch. We live as though Christ is never returning – or if he is, as though it makes no difference to us. We lose all sense of urgency and anticipation. We become complacent in our faith, sure that there is all the time in the world. If our apocalyptic brothers and sisters turn the second coming over and over in their hands, pawing at it until it no longer shines, we all to often put it in some corner and forget about it.
To those of us in this category, Jesus also has a warning: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Be alert! he says. Pay attention! And most importantly, get busy! There are many, many people who need the good news that you’ve been given, and the time for working the fields is limited. The day is well gone, and soon the night will fall when no work can be done. It’s good that you don’t worry about what day the Lord will come, but don’t ever forget that he is coming, and soon. Don’t put off what you must do for him until tomorrow, because you have no promise that tomorrow will come.
In between these two ditches of obsessions and complacency about the return of our Lord, Paul offers us a better way – a path down the middle. What can we know about Christ’s coming, about the end and the beginning, Paul asks? Only this – that it is nearer now than it once was, that we are closer to it today than we were when we became disciples. Each day lived in faith is one day closer to Jesus’ return, and although we do not know when that day will be, we know that it will finally come, just as surely as we know that Christmas will follow Advent.
For the Christian who lives with her eyes open and her head on straight, each new sunrise is an opportunity to serve Christ, and each sunset that passes is one day closer to his coming. She is wise enough not to worry about when that day will come, but she is faithful to put her utmost into every day she is given, because only her Father knows whether another day will follow.
Most of all, the wise and faithful Christian lives out each of her days in the constant prayer of the church, the prayer that echoes through our Advent preparations – “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”