Sermon from First Sunday in Advent

Recently had the privilege of serving in a supply role at another church, St. Philip’s in Orlando.  My sermon appears below.  Would add to the awake, ready, prepared, alert, vigilant stance that prayer is one of the keys.  Don’t know about you, but the force of the call to prayer this Advent appears to have quadrupled.  Anyhow, here goes:

1st Sunday in Advent 2010 (November 28)

Michael Trent Shaw, preacher

Advent Prayer for Hope in Christ’s Coming

All-powerful God,
help us to look forward in hope
to the coming of our Savior.
May we live as he taught,
ready to welcome him with burning love and faith.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Liturgy of the Hours, Fridays in Advent

I bring you warm Advent greetings from your extended Anglican family at Trinity Church in Winter Park.  I am thankful to Fr. Paul for the opportunity to serve, celebrate and preach here at St. Philip’s on this first day of the Christian New Year.  By the way, Advent (particularly this first Sunday of it) is my favorite time of year.

The central thrust of this truly wonderful liturgical season is the expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promise of the coming of Messiah—again.

Let’s look at the good news in today’s Gospel reading. Along the way, we’ll make forays into the Isaiah and Romans passages and Psalm 122.  There is much to be learned from these Scriptures, so I’ll commend them to you, and ask you to take as homework reading them together prayerfully and reflectively throughout the upcoming week.

There is a great, great deal to unpack from today’s Gospel reading, but we’re going to draw a bead on two big targets – what God wants for us and who we ought to be and how we ought to act in response.

What are we getting ready for at this time of year, at this time of our lives?  As individuals.  As families.  As the body of Christ, the church.

At the surface, we see the answer right in front of us.  Tis the season. City sidewalks and houses dressed in holiday style, people laughing, making lists, checking them twice, people passing,  pageant practice, choir practice, lights to be strung, trees to be decorated, shoppers rushing home with their treasures, Santa’s big scene, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.  At the surface.

No doubt, many of us have heard that “Jesus is coming.  Look busy!”  We have become quite adept at looking busy, and purposely being busy, but our LORD wants something else.

As per usual, many of us are allowing ourselves to be lulled into the 21st century equivalent of :

For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.

At the surface, life was business as usual.  Day-to-day life appeared normal.  Typical activities were the order of the day.  People were busy.  Life was a series of doing activities.  Things just need to get done.  What about underneath the surface?  Life isn’t just about appearances, is it?

Let’s look at Genesis 6:5 and 11 for the back story: 5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.

Does this back story sound familiar?  American society in the 21st century is awash with frenetic, perpetual motion activity, go…go…go…do…do…do.  Life as usual.  What about the thoughts of our hearts, and the resulting actions that come from these thoughts?  As things go in today’s culture we leave precious little time for thoughtful contemplation.

At Noah’s time business as usual distinctly appears to require no time with the LORD, no expectation of His powerful, merciful, just, healing kingdom.  How’s our time with the LORD nowadays?  Are we watching full of hope for his coming again?  Certainly, we do NOT want to be utterly surprised and completely unprepared for His coming – again!

Martin Luther, the great Reformation figure, is recorded as having said, “Christians should live as if Jesus had died this morning, risen this afternoon, and was coming again this evening.”

The Gospel passage for today is a sequence– an integral one at that – within what theologians and scholars have called the Olivet Discourse.  It is comprised of the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew’s book.  It is part of a Bible student’s work to understand the context of the passages under consideration.  In working through these chapters, we discover an often repeated set of verbs.  Be awake. Be ready.  Be prepared.  Be alert.  Be vigilant.  Jesus uses them to get our attention.  Methodical repetition within a confined area of text is utilized for emphasis.

The principle of readiness is the prominent theme.  In chapters 24 and 25 the verbs are used five times.  That’s what we’d call driving the point home.  It also serves as an indicator of what you would call a Gospel imperative.  Be  awake. Be ready.  Be prepared.  Be alert.  Be vigilant.  And if that’s not enough.  Look at verses 42 and 44.  What do you notice?  A professor friend of mine would ask his classes in biblical studies, “What are the therfores there for?”  My sisters and brothers, our LORD is underlining and putting in bold type (in effect, announcing in the best orator’s voice) the need for his children and his church to be awake. Be ready.  Be prepared.  Be alert.  Be vigilant.

Well, then what does all this be awake be ready be prepared be alert be vigilant look like?

As believers are we to go it alone in being so ready?

At a first glance at the text of this passage from Matthew, it may look that way.  In examining the koine Greek, though, we find that those be awake, be ready and so on, verbs are plural.  In other words, Christians as individuals AND as the body of Christ are to make themselves awake, ready, prepared, alert, and vigilant.

In my family’s story are recorded the times we played a game called manhunt.  The basic idea is for the hunted to not be found, and for the hunter to find the hunted.  Let’s just say we adjusted the rules – somewhat.  In our version, the hunteds’ objective was to frighten the absolute, living daylights out of the hunters.  Let me set the scene.  The game was always played well into the evening and with no lights on in the house.  Being a musician, I have in my possession some particularly appropriate organ/orchestral music and a fine stereo system with a subwoofer, so you begin to see the picture.  Participants included our son and some neighbor friends of his, then in the range of 14-17 years of age.  They were the hunters.  My wife and I, the hunted.  Debbie and I knew how to hide.  And we had some serious scaring skills.  More than one time we hid in the garage in the folded down front seats of Debbie’s SUV, flashlights at the ready…like so…  As the boys came into the garage and up near the windows of the SUV, we popped up suddenly and…well, I don’t believe I’ve heard any screaming of similar pitch and intensity since the first Beatles appearance on the old Ed Sullivan show…  And the pathetic thing is that we accomplished this scaring of the boys on more than one occasion.  It seemed like they were never awake, ready, prepared, alert, and vigilant enough to endure what was coming their way.  If only they had been ready…

Dr. David Lose, the preaching chairman at Luther Seminary writes:  “Is this passage frightening? I am tempted to say that it should be only if we are unprepared. For the ones who are prepared, Christ comes again as King; for those caught up in the daily activities of eating and drinking and being busy with the world, with no heed for the kingdom of God, he comes as thief. Yet while this is undoubtedly true, I suspect there is still something more. For whether prepared or unprepared, Christ always comes at us unawares. Not even exempting himself, Jesus says, “No one knows the day or the hour.” And this is inescapably unsettling. God’s mercy may temper our fear, but it does not and should not remove it. For God’s love for the vulnerable is the fierce love of a mother, and God’s desire to protect all of God’s children is the determined love of a father.

There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe where the children, learning that Aslan is not a man but a lion are not only startled but down right alarmed. “Is he – quite safe?” Susan asks. “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” replies Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” Lucy asks. To which Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Safe? The God of fierce love and determined mercy? The God of unlooked for judgment and unrelenting justice? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. And knowing that makes all the difference.

When the prophet Isaiah thought about the advent of God, he envisioned ever walking in the light of the LORD.  David in Psalm 122 proclaims gladness when going to the house of the LORD.  Paul in Romans forewarns us to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

What a contrast against the predominant mood and methods of today.  We walk in our own highly esteemed light.  We have progressed in knowledge and wisdom to the point that we have all the answers all the time, right?  Are we really that wise, that strong?

Psalm 105:4 – Look to the LORD and his strength;
seek his face always.

In the presence of the LORD, His children find mercy, love of immeasurable magnitude, justice, peace, wisdom whose depth cannot be plumbed, infinite knowledge, a great, grand vision of His kingdom!

Where, in our present earth-oriented circumstances, do we find our LORD?  Through prayer.  Persistent, pertinacious, persevering, penetrating, regular, relentless,  tireless, unshakable prayer.

What of the armor to which the apostle, Paul, is referring?  Read Ephesians 6:10-18.

Furthermore, are we glad when we go to the house of the LORD?

Where dear friends are we most ourselves as children of God?  Where do we learn, hands and hearts on, best about His kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace?  Where do we come for His instruction on how to love the LORD our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strengths, and for training on how to decisively love our neighbors as ourselves?

At and as the church!

Austin Farrer was a 20th century English priest, theologian, and philosopher.  I studied a bit of his work during my masters studies in seminary.  I offer an Advent thought of his:

Our journey sets out from God in our creation, and returns to God at the final judgement.  As the bird rises from the earth to fly, and must some time return to the earth from which it rose; so God sends us forth to fly, and we must fall back into the hands of God at last.  But God does not wait for the failure of our power and the expiry of our days to drop us back into his lap.  He goes Himself to meet us and everywhere confronts us.  Where is the countenance which we must finally look in the eyes, and not be able to turn away our head?  It smiles up at Mary from the cradle, it calls Peter from the nets, it looks on him with grief when he has denied his Master.  Our judge meets us at every step of our way, with forgiveness on his lips and succour in his hands.  He offers us these things while there is yet time.  Every day opportunity shortens, our scope for learning our Redeemer’s love is narrowed by twenty-four hours, and we come nearer to the end of our journey, when we shall fall into the hands of the living God, and touch the hearts of the devouring fire.

Are we awake, ready, prepared, alert, vigilant?  As Christians?  As the body of Christ, the Church?

May we pray so.

Amen.

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