Sermon: Advent I 2019
The Lord be with you.
Happy new year! Today is the first Sunday in the Advent season, the beginning of a new church year. From now until Pentecost, we will be remembering and reflecting upon the story of the good news that came to us in Jesus Christ. And it all begins today!
Do you remember when you were a child and it was the first day of school? You had prepared for that day. Maybe you got some new clothes and shoes. You had gone to the store and picked up school supplies: new pens and pencils, paper, notebooks, and other things you needed to put in your desk so that you could tackle a new year. You might have been preparing to meet a new teacher, some new classmates, new subjects and lessons to learn. All of life seemed like a blank slate. Everything was new and fresh. The path lay before you, a path you’d never walked on before. You were filled with hopes and dreams and a little anxiety too.
Now here we are again, at the turning of another year. The Christian calendar begins with Advent, a time of hope, a time of looking forward, a time of expectation. This year we will follow Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew. Today our readings come from the prophet Isaiah, from the Apostle Paul’s letter to Rome, and from Matthew. As I read them, four phrases stuck out to me, and I’d like for us to think about them together this morning. These phrases make up an announcement that God is making to us.
(1) The phrase from Isaiah that caught my attention is: “It shall come to pass in the last days.” Here the prophet is announcing that God has a future and a hope for us.
The Bible is essentially a book of hope. The Old Testament, for example, was mostly composed or collected, edited, and put together as a single book in the days during and after the Babylonian Exile. The Jewish nation had been destroyed, and many of the people had been uprooted from the land and taken to Babylon as captives. They had lost everything: the kingdom, the temple, Jerusalem, their homes, their livelihoods, their families and their lives as they knew them. They saw little future and had little hope.
That’s when the Old Testament began to take shape, and because they couldn’t go to the Temple anymore, they began to meet in synagogues. They couldn’t offer sacrifices and perform the other rituals that took place in the Temple, so they began learning and praying the scriptures together in synagogue meetings. And one of the messages they heard over and over again, especially from the prophets, was “It shall come to pass in the latter days…” God was speaking to them about the hope that was to come: the end of exile, the restoration of the kingdom, and the rule of a righteous Messiah who would raise them to life again and establish justice and peace forever.
In a similar way, the New Testament was written in a time when many followers of Jesus were being persecuted under the Roman Empire. In Jesus, people had found new life, forgiveness, a community of faith, hope, and love in which to live, and a mission of sharing Jesus’ good news with the world. But it was hard, and many of them faced social ridicule, others had to go into hiding, and a number were martyred. At times, even though they had Jesus, it must have been hard for them to see a bright future and to have hope. And so, the Apostles and other Christian leaders began to write these little communities of Christians to encourage them and to give them hope.
(2) One of them was Paul, and when he wrote to Rome, he said the second thing that got my attention in the readings this morning: “The night is far gone, the day is near.” Paul was telling those struggling believers that the future God had promised, the hope they were looking forward to in Christ, was getting ever closer.
It was no longer some far off prospect. Christ had died. Christ had risen. And Christ was coming again. And in the meantime, Christ was with them, giving them the power of the Holy Spirit. The kingdom had dawned, they were tasting the blessings of it in the gospel, and they should keep looking forward with hope as they walked with Christ each day.
(3) The last two phrases that caught my attention from today’s readings are in Matthew. In the first, Jesus says, “About that day and hour, no one knows.” And in the second, he challenges us with these words: “Therefore, you must be ready.”
At this point, I think, this message comes down to us. Jesus is stressing here that we can never know the future precisely, never know exactly when he will return, never know when God will intervene in our lives or in the world in ways that will shake everything up and set us on an entirely new course. You never know. Therefore, you must be ready.
Ten years ago, my friend Michael Spencer, known in the blogging world as the Internet Monk, wrote a piece called, “There Is Always a Day Before.” In it he said:
We all live the days before. We are living them now.
There was a day before 9-11.
There was a day before your child told you she was pregnant.
There was a day before your wife said she’d had enough.
There was a day before your employer said “lay offs.”
We are living our days before. We are living them now.
Some of us are doing, for the last time, what we think we will be doing twenty years from now.
Some of us are on the verge of a much shorter life, or a very different life, or a life turned upside down.
Some of us are preaching our last sermon, making love for the last time, saying “I love you” to our children for the last time in our own home. Some of us are spending our last day without the knowledge of eternal judgment and the reality of God. We are promising tomorrow will be different and tomorrow is not going to give us the chance, because God has a different tomorrow entirely on our schedule. We just don’t know it today.
He didn’t know it at the time, but when Michael Spencer wrote those words, he had cancer. Within five months, he died. We never know the time or day, either of Jesus’ return or of the day when our lives will be forever changed.
However, Michael gave some pretty good counsel in that piece about how to live on these “days before,” and I’d like to finish with his words today.
Live each day as the day that all of the gospel is true. Live this day and be glad in it. Live this day as the day of laying down sin and taking up the glad and good forgiveness of Jesus. Live this day determined to be useful and joyful in Jesus. Live this day in a way that, should all things change tomorrow, you will know that the Lord is your God and this is the day to be satisfied in him.
My friends, God has a future and a hope for us, and that future is getting ever closer. No one knows exactly when or how that day will come to pass. But today is one of those “days before,” and today, maybe each of us should be asking: What does it mean for me to get prepared?
May the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Amen.