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 Longing of Christ’s Heart (Matthew 23:37-24:14)

“If Thou Had’st Known” by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (New International Version)

Christ’s cry of love for the city of Jerusalem– the longing to bring the people together and shepherd them with care and compassion – came after a very pointed pronouncement of woes against a distorted religion that was in vogue at the time. Jesus saw the current state of worship, found it to be terribly wanting, gave a scathing rebuke, and saw ahead to its ultimate demise.

Jesus did not just blast the establishment, then humph and walk away disgusted. Instead, he looked with sadness over the city and broke into a tear-filled, heart-wrenching love song for his wayward people. Jesus was both angry and sad because of his deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God and to find their ultimate purpose and meaning in him.

“And Jesus Wept” statue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Any religious fool can rant about the ills of the world, ungodly persons, and defective institutions. However, it takes a person with the heart of Jesus to weep over it all and follow him into suffering on behalf of others so that they might come to the peaceable kingdom of righteousness. 

If our hearts are not unraveled over the sin and injustice of the world, we are in no position to rant about anything. That’s because grace and mercy is the currency of God’s economy. 

Thus, we need to repent like we mean it, pray as if our lives depended on it, and proclaim the good news of Christ as if there is not a tomorrow.

In a results-driven culture, congregations want clear strategy plans for ministry. Yet, a group of people can implement the best of ministries and still not realize their well-laid plans. If Jesus didn’t see what he wanted to happen come to fruition in Jerusalem, then I’m not sure how any of us can always expect success in ministry. We may fail in many ways; but let us not fail to weep over our communities and neighborhoods and long for them to know Christ.

It’s okay that neither every ministry goes as planned nor every person is blessed by what we do. If we find it hard to accept this, and feel out of control, then we want to know the future – how everything is going to shake-out. This is precisely what the disciples wanted to know, since their expectations weren’t realized.

Jesus essentially told them that things were going to get even tougher. Therefore, they need to be ready and persevere through the adversity. And some of that trouble will be downright cataclysmic. Jesus did not give his disciples a seminar on having a successful ministry; he simply told them to endure suffering and focus on proclaiming the gospel.

But for that to happen, we need to accept that we cannot control every variable of ministry and plan for every contingency. The only guarantees we have is that God is with us, and Christ is coming again. That’s it, my friends.

So, instead of control, we must accept our limitations and practice self-control. We can continually monitor our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus – including a heart of love that weeps over the brokenness and stubbornness of the world. 

Followers of Jesus walk the only true road of Christian discipleship: the path of humility. Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could have described himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble.” (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem, by Enrique Simonet Lombardo (1866-1927)

Jesus is the perfect example of a leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others. Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, nor thought he was the reason for another’s failure of faith. Instead, Jesus always connected what he was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.

You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others. Truly humble folk dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it. This allows them to listen deeply, give generously, and encourage others liberally.

Standing firm to the end doesn’t come through crafting complicated charts of the end times; it comes through being humble, being grounded in the here-and-now, being attentive to the people around us, and being a guide for the lost. More importantly, it’s what Christ wants us to be.

Loving Lord Jesus, let me have your zeal for God’s house and your heart for lost people! Change my heart, O God, and let it reflect your grace and truth in everything I say and do; through Christ my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, reign now and forever. Amen.

A Parable of Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo

“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

“‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

“The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

“Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him. (Common English Bible)

Contemporary persons aren’t the only ones who want to know whose in and whose out; it’s been around forever.

In the ancient world of Jesus, people were always concerned about conformity to the established system and society of the way things are. For religious folk, who gets in and who gets left out was an important issue .So, Jesus decided to tell a parable about entrance into the kingdom of God.

Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders who are the true inheritors of the kingdom.

The parable, at its core, is a warning to all the spiritually serious insiders: Beware, lest your energies be spent in correctness of behavior, conformity of belonging, and cockiness of belief rather than following Jesus. And, at the same time, the parable encourages spiritually estranged outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Far too many people arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will.

It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive Christ’s story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful. He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an “alternative lifestyle” and people murmured behind his back. 

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.” But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, the religiously different with esoteric beliefs, immigrants from other countries, ex-convicts living in half-way houses, and persons with addictions are all entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did. And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

It was parables like this that created a religious scandal and eventually got Jesus killed.

The offense for many upstanding citizens is this: that their right doctrine and clean living is not the way of salvation.

Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was simply assumed they were on the outside and would be judged by God.

However, the proof of genuine faith is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? 

If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? 

Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!

Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” 

You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

Jesus Preaching to the Multitude by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

If we have the spiritual ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark.

If we have the spiritual eyes to see, we can observe people overwhelmed with life circumstances standing in front of us.

If we have the spiritually strengthened hands willing to labor, we can support needy folks around us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Whenever we take the focus off who is in and who is out, then without judgment and a heart full of compassion, we can address the:

  • Loneliness of so many people living alone and dying alone.
  • Shame which thousands secretly carry every day.
  • Pain of broken bodies, broken hearts, broken spirits, and broken minds experienced by individuals everywhere.

The Lord Jesus feels the loneliness, shame, and pain of people – which is why he told a parable like he did. Christ is looking to activate grace through his people, the church, to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that flings open the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed.

Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call. Amen.

The Kingdom of God Is Here (Matthew 10:5-15)

Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.

“Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment, and all you need to keep that going is three meals a day. Travel light.

“When you enter a town or village, don’t insist on staying in a luxury inn. Get a modest place with some modest people and be content there until you leave.

“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way. You can be sure that on Judgment Day they’ll be mighty sorry—but it’s no concern of yours now. (The Message)

“People can’t observe the coming of God’s kingdom. They can’t say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ You see, God’s kingdom is within  you.” Jesus, from Luke 17:20-21, GW

When Jesus told his followers that the kingdom of God is here, he didn’t simply mean that it all of a sudden showed up. No, it’s already here. It always has been. We just haven’t paid attention. And we haven’t noticed because we keep looking for a location, somewhere outside of ourselves. But, as it turns out, we already have what we’ve been searching for.

Christianity, at its core, is about following Christ. And that journey with Jesus is first and foremost a journey into oneself. This is why the Lord tells the disciples not to go first to outsiders. There’ll be a time for that. But now, the journey to their fellow Jews was to be an internal walk into the very depths of their own souls and the soul of a nation.

The singular message of this particular mission was to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. It is here. In fact, it is so near and here that it is actually within you. But the disciples needed to discover this for themselves by going out and removing all obstacles to awareness of God’s light.

Jesus sent the disciples out and told them not to take anything with them because they already had what they needed. The kingdom of God is already within them.

A Byzantine fresco of Jesus sending the disciples, 12th century

So, they were to leave all their baggage and their stuff behind. The disciples were to be stripped of all their trusted outer resources so that they had the ability to see themselves, to others, and human need – and then to be moved in their hearts with compassion, just as Jesus is. 

Whenever we take all our pre-packaged stuff with us into relationships and the doing of Christ’s mission, we already assume we know what other people need. If we have nothing with us, then we are able to see people for who they actually are; we can genuinely listen to what they are saying. 

You have freely received compassion from God, so freely give it away. Not everyone will respond, but that’s not your business; they will have to deal with God on that later.

Compassion is to be our response to human need. Yet, we don’t always respond with compassion because of the obstacles within our own hearts and lives prevent us from seeing others and their needs.

The following are a few of obstructions which hinder us from compassion and perceiving the kingdom of God within us, and how to deal with them:

  1. Contempt. Contempt breeds contempt. Unacknowledged and unresolved anger produces bitterness. Hatred feeds more hatred. Our environment makes a difference. For example, if you find you have to check your heart at the workplace in order to do your job, then you need to either you quit your, or bring forth the kingdom of God by tirelessly advocating for compassionate treatment of people.
  2. Busyness. I’m referring to an unhealthy pace of life. Many of us work too much and do too many things. We cannot have compassionate hearts by moving so fast that we fail to see other people’s needs. Slow down. No one is going to come to the end of their life and wished they had been workaholics. Make a thoughtful plan to slow down enough so you can tune into the needs of others and have emotional energy for them.
  3. Resentment. It’s possible to become coldhearted by excessive and unrelenting caregiving. This is the same sort of problem as an unhealthy pace of life; you give so much that you actually begin to resent the people you care for. Caregiving has to be meticulously balanced with self-care. There’s a time for everything, including rest and recuperation.
  4. Inaction. Only receiving and not giving is what I call “spiritual constipation.” It’s when a person listens to hundreds and thousands of sermons and podcasts but doesn’t listen to their neighbor. They have no intention of putting anything they hear into practice.

However, with nothing restricting or obstructing God’s kingdom within us, we can see the divine image within each person and within ourselves. We can begin to radiate that divine presence and be transformed by it’s inner light.

Like Jesus, transfigured before the disciples on Mount Tabor, we too, become transfigured by God’s energy of love touching our hidden divine energy as image-bearers. That energy now comes forth because we have left everything behind to follow Christ and experience the generosity which, ironically, only comes from having nothing.

This is a spiritual walk we cannot take alone. The road we travel is the way of community. Just as God is community – Father, Son, and Spirit – always in a unity of love, so we, as God’s image-bearers with the divine light within us, must strip ourselves of everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

We are to fix our eyes on Jesus and see him, the pioneer of our faith, the Light of the World, the Living Water, and Bread for the world, who endured all things for the redemption of humanity and all creation.

Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to yourself: We praise and bless you for those whom you have sent in the power of the Spirit to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. We thank you that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors, and that in every place your servants call upon your Name; for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.