December 3, 2017 – The First Sunday of Advent, Year B
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I think the end of the world needs a better PR firm. We hear Jesus’ words about the sun being darkened and the moon not giving its light, the stars falling from heaven and the heavenly powers being shaken, and we want to run for cover. This season of Advent is as much about preparing for the second coming of Christ as it is about getting ready for Christmas, but I don’t know anyone who tucks his or her children or grandchildren into bed with stories of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I might argue that tales of a bearded man in a red suit sneaking down your chimney are just as scary, but not even my kids are subjected to bedtime stories about the end of the world.
How many of us are as excited about that day when the “Son of Man com[es] in the clouds with great power and glory” as we are about opening presents on December 25? For the first three hundred years of Christianity, no one bothered to celebrate Christmas. In the four gospel accounts, only Luke gives us details about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Matthew mentions it but only in passing. Mark and John don’t bother with it at all. But all four gospel accounts tell us about the end of the world. It may have taken centuries for followers of Jesus to begin commemorating his birth, but, right from the start, his disciples were looking forward to the day he was coming back. There was no hope greater to those who believed in Jesus than the savior’s promised return. And, even if we’ve lost sight of it, there is no greater hope for us as well.
Listen again to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” The prophet prayed to the Lord that he would speed the day when he would show up in power and make himself known to the adversaries of God’s people. The people of Israel had suffered the consequences of their sins for long enough. They had received more than their fair share of punishment. The day of the Lord’s arrival would be a day of victory and triumph for God’s people. The fire and earthquakes that the prophet envisioned were signs that God had come to defeat those adversaries and rescue his people. That was the same hope that Jesus was giving to his disciples in Mark 13, but we’ve become so comfortable and complacent that we’d rather have the world as it is than the world that Jesus and the prophets tells us it will be.
To a first-century Christian, the promised overthrow of earthly powers represented a dramatic change for the better. To a persecuted believer, the thought that God might take control of the situation was among the happiest dreams that one could imagine. During those first three centuries, as the suffering of Jesus’ followers intensified, Christians needed a message of hope. Jesus’ return had been delayed. The day of triumph had been stalled. “Keep watch!” the church’s leaders reminded their people. Remember what Jesus himself said about the fig tree: just as you know that when its branch becomes tender and puts for leaves that summer is near, so, too, when you see these signs of conflict and strife will you know that the Lord is near. No one but the Father knows exactly when that day will be, but do not lose hope. Keep awake. Stay alert. The Lord may come at any moment.
That was and is good news to a believer who is desperate for a sign that the world will not always be the way it is, but what is the message of Advent to a twenty-first century Christian from Decatur, Alabama, who looks and lives like us? What does Advent mean to someone who enjoys not only the freedom to practice his or her religion without fear but also the privilege of being in the dominant culture? What sort of hope does the overthrow of earthly power represent to someone who is that earthly power?
Some of us are suffering just below the surface. We may not live in a place where famine has taken hold of the land. Our home may not be a tent in a refugee camp. But some of us aren’t sure whether there will be enough money left over for food or whether we will be able to make that next mortgage payment. What is the message of Advent to them? Some of us are dealing with a diagnosis that is worse than other people know. Some of us are hiding the truth even from our own families. What is the message of Advent to them? Some of us will have more empty chairs than filled ones at our Christmas table. Some of us lie awake at night worried about a child whom we have not seen in years. What is the message of Advent to them?
Come, Lord Jesus. If you’re a persecuted Christian or a refugee, that is your greatest hope. Come, Lord Jesus. If you’re lost, lonely, or afraid, that is your most fervent prayer. Come, Lord Jesus. If you’ve had more than your fair share of suffering, that is your deepest need. Come, Lord Jesus. But what about the rest of us? Is that our hope as well?
The good news of Advent is that the end will come soon. Jesus is coming to reverse the fortunes of the world. That’s what happened back in Bethlehem, and that’s what will happen when the Son of Man appears in the clouds. All that have suffered will be relieved. All that are downtrodden will be raised up. All that are lost will be rescued. And those who have enjoyed the fullness of the blessings of this life without acknowledging those who have gone without will also have their fortunes reversed. The Lord is coming. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Is that good news for you, or is it a wakeup call?
What does it take to receive the message of Advent with hope? What must we do to celebrate with joy the promised coming of the Son of Man? We must believe that what God is doing through his Son Jesus is good news for us. We must believe that our best future lies not in the riches of the world but in the riches of heaven. We must believe that the power of God, which reigns in the hearts of the meek and mild, is the only power worth wielding. On whose side will we stand—the power of God or the powers of this world? If we want to celebrate the coming of Jesus, we must identify with those who hear the news of his coming with great joy. Like them, we must forsake the ways of the world and embrace the way of God. We must become the poor, the suffering, the outcast, the persecuted, and the downtrodden. We must become those who hope for the change that the Lord will bring. That change is coming, and our Lord bids to stay alert. It is our faith in him alone that allows us to wait with hope instead of fear.