Are You Ready for Advent? (Matthew 24:36-44)

Advent Starry Night #5 by Virginia Wieringa

Jesus said, “But about that [judgment] day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (New International Version)

The best way of observing the first advent of Christ, his incarnation, is by preparing ourselves for his second advent, his return to the earth.

Just because there is sun today doesn’t mean everyday will be that way. The storm clouds are gathering; the Day of the Lord is at hand. Will you be ready?

Satan once called to him some demons of hell and said he wanted to send one of them to earth to aid women and men in the ruination of their souls. He asked which one would want to go.

One creature came forward and said, “I will go.” Satan said, “If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?” He said, “I will tell the children of men that there is no heaven.” Satan said, “They will not believe you, for there is a bit of heaven in every human heart. In the end everyone knows that right and good must have the victory. You may not go.” 

Then another came forward, darker and fouler than the first. Satan said, “If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?” He said, “I will tell them there is no hell.” Satan looked at him and said, “Oh, no; they will not believe you, for in every human heart there’s a thing called conscience, an inner voice which testifies to the truth that not only will good be triumphant, but that evil will be defeated. You may not go.” 

Then one last creature came forward, this one from the darkest place of all. Satan said to him, “And if I send you, what will you say to women and men to aid them in the destruction of their souls?” He said, “I will tell them there is no hurry.” Satan said, “Go!” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)

Most people’s crime in not some gross sin, but indifference, without much thought to a coming judgment. It seems we are all spiritual procrastinators. Why do today what we can put off till tomorrow? 

But the spiritually indifferent won’t know what hit them. 

So we need to be deeply concerned for the coming Day of the Lord, which may be very soon. 

The question for us is not, “When will Christ return?” Rather, the question is, “Are you ready for Christ’s return?” We must:

  • Keep watch, stay alert, and be ready, like a watchman on an ancient city wall scanning the horizon for an advancing army.
  • Remain vigilant and not forget that Jesus is coming again. 
  • Live every moment of our lives in light of the promise of Christ’s return. 
  • Be busy (not busybodies) because we don’t know the day of Christ’s second advent.

What does it mean to keep watch, be ready, and stay alert? 

In between these two advents of Christ, believers are to bear witness to a world going about their merry way unaware of the judgment that is about to overtake them. Like Noah, we actively build the ark of the church instead of living as if Jesus weren’t coming.

Noah was a preacher of righteousness in both word and deed, building an ark in a place and around a people who had never seen rain. What’s more, constructing the massive ark took a solid one-hundred years. This was no easy feat.

Like Noah, we must plug away and be faithful stewards, doing the tedious and patient work given to us. We aren’t supposed to be like the irresponsible teenager who, when given the responsibility of watching over the house while the parents are gone for the weekend, throws a big party and trashes the place. The parents will come home at a time that the teenager does not expect, and then there will certainly be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

When the Lord returns, we don’t know who will be taken and who will be left. Two different people might look the same on the outside, doing the same work, but each of those persons working side by side can really be very different on the inside. So, let us be patient as we await the coming of Christ and avoid losing sight of what is truly important.

One day a man named Denis Waitley was trying to catch a flight but running late. So he literally ran through the airport terminal and got to the gate the split second the flight attendant closed the door. Denis explained his situation, that he had a speaking engagement and needed to be on that flight, but the attendant didn’t budge. 

Denis stormed out of the boarding area and back to the ticket counter to register a complaint and reschedule his flight. His anger intensified as he waited for more than twenty minutes in a line that barely moved. Just before he got to the counter an announcement over the intercom changed his life. 

The plane he missed getting on, Flight 191 from Chicago to Los Angeles, crashed on takeoff and killed every person on board the plane. Denis Waitley never registered his complaint. In fact, he never returned his invalidated ticket.

He took the ticket home and pinned it on a bulletin board in his office to remind him whenever he got frustrated or upset that life is more than day to day impatience and worry and complaints. It’s about serving a lost world destined to slide away from God apart from the grace that can turn judgment into blessing.

It could be today. Every day we must live with the reality that Christ’s return is imminent. Until that happens, we are to be faithful servants of God by serving a world that is tremendous need of getting on the ark and being saved from the judgment that will come. 

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Effects of the Fall (Genesis 6:11-22)

The Flood of Noah by Majd Ramadan, 2014

In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.

God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth, so make a wooden ark. Make the ark with nesting places and cover it inside and out with tar. This is how you should make it: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make a roof for the ark and complete it one foot from the top. Put a door in its side. In the hold below, make the second and third decks.

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath. But I will set up my covenant with you. You will go into the ark together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive. Take some from every kind of food and stow it as food for you and for the animals.”

Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him. (Common English Bible)

The entire world is profoundly broken. 

Everywhere, people are messed-up. In one breath they can tell you they’re sorry for another’s abuse or violence against you, then turn right around and say some irrational nonsense and terribly insensitive things to you.

It doesn’t matter where you go – whether school, work, home and even church, there is institutional brokenness. Individual persons, and the human structures and systems they put in place, all contain elements of bondage instead of freedom. It doesn’t take a religious person to observe that there’s such a thing as sin.

Holy Scripture’s description of this sad reality goes all the way back to a story about the fall of humanity into sin and rebellion. Satan, the devil, led the original persons, Adam and Eve, into disobedience of God. Satan tempted Eve to doubt whether God really had her best interests at mind; to question the truthfulness of God’s Word; and, to wonder about the wisdom of listening to God (Genesis 3:1-5). Adam just flat out chose to disobey God, and, so, the entire world changed (Genesis 3:16-17). 

Immediately, everything was different in the world and with people. The choice to disobey God brought feelings of fear and shame; a loss of fellowship with God; hiding from God; a bent to pervert the truth; the propensity for the genders to try and dominate each other; expulsion from the garden; and physical death (Genesis 3:7-24). 

And the unholy tools people used against one another were violent and corrupt. People thought nothing of oppressing each other, abusing one another, attacking others – both verbally and physically. Rape, assault, theft, and murder became daily experiences. That’s some downright icky stuff. 

No wonder the world is messed up.

God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7, MSG)

Noah was the only guy on the face of the earth for whom the Lord saw any good. And it was enough good worth saving. Yet, people are still in the nasty habit of turning on each other, like a bunch of sharks with blood in the water.

Unfortunately, the fall of humanity still affects us all. It has brought not only physical death, but spiritual death. That means we are alienated from God, in rebellion, and enslaved to our own passions and desires (Isaiah 1:2-6; Romans 2:14-15; Ephesians 2:1-3). 

We are also alienated from one another by having continual bents toward discord, suspicion, and jealousy instead of love and trust (Romans 1:29-31; James 3:14-16). 

We are even alienated and totally out of touch with ourselves by either loving ourselves as gods or hating ourselves with an inordinate emotional masochism (Philippians 2:21; 2 Timothy 3:2-4). In short, we are selfish people who experience separation from God, others, and self.

If this is the true reality of humanity, then it is awfully depressing, discouraging, and damaging. And we know it’s true because we’ve all been both victims and victimizers. So, who then, will rescue us from this horrific death? 

Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:57). 

The good news is that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the curse has been reversed. Christ has restored us to our original place of fellowship with God. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In Christ, there is hope for humanity (John 14:6). 

To live in freedom, therefore, involves knowledge, honesty, and sincere decisions of faith and love whereby truth is applied to life.

Just as the world needed a thorough purging of evil through a cleansing worldwide flood, so we need a bath of grace, to be completely awash with the love of God in Christ, to have all the crud of evil scrubbed from our soul. And this is precisely what Christian baptism symbolizes.

Jesus offered himself for us so that we might live without violence and no longer be separated from God, others, and self. He has brought us reconciliation. In him we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (2 Corinthians 5:16-19; Ephesians 1:3; 2 Peter 1:3).

In Christianity, the purpose of ministry is to come alongside people trapped in their awful cycles of brokenness and communicate good news of grace and forgiveness with both words and actions.

Although the world is terribly askew, God has demonstrated his love for us in that, while we were still violent and corrupt sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). 

We needed a Savior. God provided One. 

Are you in touch with the ways you are separated from God, others, and self? 

Are you aware of the ways in which your church or faith community has an unhealthy separation from the world? 

In what ways can you apply the love of God to broken people and systems in your community? What will it take to reach them?

Sin, guilt, shame, rebellion, disobedience, and violence need not define us. We can do better.

Almighty God, we have sinned against you, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us all our offenses; and grant that we may serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Grace Changes Everything (Isaiah 12:1-6)

In that day [to come] you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)

The Bad News

The reason prophecies are made about better times ahead is because the times now are not so good. That was true of Isaiah’s day, and still remains true today.

It’s easy to identify what’s wrong in this world, especially during a political election cycle! It’s not so easy to recognize the ways we keep ourselves as Christians in bad times. A big reason why, and I unabashedly state it, even though I say it much to my chagrin:

Christianity in our day has mostly failed at spiritual transformation because we have not identified and named the real evils we face, thus leaving us largely irrelevant to a world desperately in need of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, speaking to religious folk who should have known better, said:

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV)

The tragedy of our age, which was the same tragedy of Isaiah’s age, is that there are so many godless followers of God. They fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters. Many Christians’ faith is not much more than conforming to cultural Christian norms while mostly ignoring the realities in front of their faces.

We say we need God but then turn to Google for answers and solutions.

We bemoan the lack of righteousness in the nation, then obnoxiously argue with others and create unnecessary relational wedges.

We decry the injustice of our cities and our world, then do nothing to address the problems and change it.

We talk about the need for others to change rather than first looking in the mirror. Yet, even when we do that, we walk away and forget what we look like.

“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

The Good News

However, judgment is not the last word. Even though the prophecy of Isaiah is thick with it, and I started out with less than uplifting words, there is one word that transcends every word: grace.

The grace of God is remarkable! The Lord made promises to Israel in Isaiah’s day not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radical and scandalous grace. It wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal, with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace.

Because God is Love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we can live up to being the sort of people our dogs think we are already.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

If grace isn’t the answer, we aren’t asking the right question. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is wildly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The Bible is an extended drama of redemption; and Isaiah’s prophecy is an adventure of God’s steadfast love toward unlovable people – which is why Isaiah is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort of justifying and validating ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of grace, we are forever undone by God’s mercy.

Grace leads us to praise God

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us… In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)

Grace causes us to trust God

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, NIV)

Grace results in our comfort and satisfaction in God

Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17, NIV)

Grace creates in us thanksgiving to God

“We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15, NIV)

The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you. And if that isn’t something that gets you expressing gratitude to God, then you have failed to see God in your dog. We make known among the nations what God has done because God has really done something in our lives worth babbling our thanksgiving over to everyone. And grace helps us to do it.

Grace causes us to sing together to God

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! We need times of both silence and contemplative worship and times of becoming unhinged with some noisy worship to the God who has saved us and given us something to sing about. 

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. (Psalm 98:1, NKJV)

Conclusion

The world mostly ignores God. Some Christians take God’s grace for granted. The greatest sin of all is the sheer absence of grace – because where there is no grace, there is no God. God is the expert in transforming apathetic people into caring, compassionate, and concerned citizens of the kingdom who raise their voices and declare the works of the Lord.

Isaiah’s entire prophecy is about returning to the Lord. And the upcoming season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord… be captivated by grace… renew our love for Jesus… lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.

Let us worship Christ the King and proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything and everyone.

Gracious God, we come with nothing but ourselves and our baggage of sin. Forgive, cleanse, renew, revive, refresh, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted through us, to your glory and honor. Amen.

Like Father Like Son (John 5:19-29)

The Trinity, by Ukrainian painter Feodosiy Humeniuk, 1981

Jesus responded to the Jewish leaders: 

“I assure you that the Son can’t do anything by himself except what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he does. He will show him greater works than these so that you will marvel. 

As the Father raises the dead and gives life, so too does the Son give life to whomever he wishes. The Father doesn’t judge anyone, but he has given all judgment to the Son so that everyone will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent him.

I assure you that whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and won’t come under judgment but has passed from death into life.

I assure you that the time is coming—and is here!—when the dead will hear the voice of God’s Son, and those who hear it will live. Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. He gives the Son authority to judge because he is the Human One.

Don’t be surprised by this, because the time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice. Those who did good things will come out into the resurrection of life, and those who did wicked things into the resurrection of judgment.”

(Common English Bible)

So goes the parent, so goes the child. Sons look and act a great deal like their fathers. And there is no mistaking the resemblance between Father of the heavens and Son of the incarnation.

In Christianity, to see Jesus is to see God. To know Christ is to know the Lord. They are distinct, yet inextricably linked as one; each is differentiated from the other in personhood, yet united with the same divine substance.

The deity of the Father and the deity of the Son is one, equal in glory, co-eternal in majesty.

What the Father is, the Son is.

Uncreated, eternal, almighty, and sovereign is the Father; uncreated, eternal, almighty, and sovereign is the Son.

The Father and the Son are not two gods but one God.

There is only one Father; there is only one Son. Each is neither greater nor lesser than the other.

Whoever wants to be saved from guilt, shame, sin, death, and hell – and to be delivered from the injustice of the world, the failings of oneself, and the machinations of evil, should think about the Father and the Son and the Spirit, the Holy Trinity, one God.

– Athanasian Creed

So, why is all this creedal Christian doctrine of any importance? Why pay attention to such things?

Because there are many issues and problems in this world of great importance which must be addressed and dealt with. We need to have some idea of how to go about: 

  • Governing ourselves as a free people
  • Eradicating poverty and disease
  • Educating our children
  • Paying taxes
  • Providing excellent and cost effective healthcare for everyone
  • Dismantling racism
  • Seeking peaceful international relations
  • Building responsible and accountable local community relationships
  • Supporting small businesses
  • Helping workers make a decent contributive living
  • Loving our families and faith communities 

It is my unshakable conviction that all these issues, and many others, need more than our collective mental attention and physical resources; these problems also need spiritual resolutions and solutions.

Seasons, years, centuries, and millennia come and go. People are born, live, and die. Generations exist and then are no more. Civilizations rise and fall. Through it all and above it all is the person of Jesus.

Christ is alive. He brings breath from dust, beauty from ashes, order from chaos, stability from insecurity, dignity from disrespect, and meaning from uncertainty. Jesus gives life, abundant and to the full.

Christ the King, San Miniato al Monte Church, Florence, Italy

Today, this very moment, Christ is still on the throne of all creation. 

Human elections and institutions only have authority as given by Jesus, the Ruler of all.

Presently, Jesus is attentive and vigilant to people, actively interceding for us at the right hand of his Father in heaven. At this very moment, the Holy Spirit is the continuing presence of Christ on this earth, applying Christ’s redemption of humanity to the lives of millions. 

Sometimes we need to remember how important our spiritual resources are to living in this world – and to clarify what’s really of ultimate significance in this old broken world. 

My unwavering spiritual persuasion is this: People need the Lord. Therefore, it only makes good spiritual sense to live in ways that foster a connection with Jesus. 

This morning, I did what I do every morning – whether I’m sick or well, sad or happy, facing a busy day or a relaxed day – I began my day with Scripture reading, prayer, reflection, and gratitude. And I do it with the realization that Christ is King, that as the divine/human Lord of all, his:

  • authority is real
  • rule is benevolent
  • sovereignty is ubiquitous
  • reign is supreme
  • judgments are right and good
  • power is mighty enough to raise the dead

The Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ is the exalted and glorified Son of God, the Sovereign authority over every dominion. The works of Jesus bear testimony to the cosmic reality that he is Lord of all. And, if that were not enough, Jesus shares his divine power with us, his people.

In the face of Christ’s majesty, the valid and appropriate response is sheer submission to Christ’s authority. 

Just as Jesus listened to the Father and obeyed the Father’s will, so we need to listen to Jesus and carry out his will. 

Just as Jesus enjoyed his relationship with the Father, so we are to bask in our wonderful relationship with Jesus. 

Since Jesus submitted to death on a cross and rose from the dead through God’s power, we now have access to that power by God’s grace through faith in Christ. And we are to use that divine power to take up our own cross and bear the great issues and problems of our day with all the spiritual resources granted to us in Christ Jesus.

Like Father, like Son. Like Christ, like Christians. May all followers of Jesus resemble their Lord in each word and in every way.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.