A number of years ago when I was serving a church in another town, a man stopped me after the morning worship service and asked if he could make an appointment to see me. Then he told me that he had a message for me from the Lord. As I hesitated I noticed members watching and listening; and in a weak moment, I offered to see him early on Monday morning. The next day he showed up, bright and early. As I sized him up, he seemed to be a nice-enough fellow--polite, soft-spoken, and well-groomed. He thanked me for agreeing to see him and said that the Lord had told him to give the message to every preacher in town. I tried to hide my disappointment that the message from the Lord was not just for me.
Then he told me that the Lord wanted me to know three things. First, there is no "pre-tribulation rapture" as depicted in the Left Behind books. He said that the Lord doesn't know where people got that idea. I was sort of relieved to hear that. Second, he said that the preachers need to be talking now about what the scriptures say about the second coming. And thirdly, he said--and I quote--"There will be grave consequences for the world if the church does not wake up to this topic." It all sounded pretty ominous to me. With that, the man got up, thanked me for my time, and headed out the door. To be honest with you, I soon forgot about that conversation...until late that November when he sent me an email reminding me of our visit and the words the Lord told him to tell me. He encouraged me to study what the scriptures say about the second coming and to preach on that.
Well, that is exactly what I was doing when I got his email. I was studying the 21st chapter of Luke and working on a sermon about the last days:
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves..."
I know what you're thinking. What does any of this have to do with Advent and Christmas? Our thoughts already have turned toward putting up the Christmas tree and decorating our homes. Over the course of the next few weeks, Christians will gather in special worship services, and everywhere we go there are reminders that Christmas is coming. Frankly, on this first Sunday in Advent, we all would rather hear a message about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Why does the church encourage us to consider this passage today?
Well, first of all, the church understands that many of us need a wake-up call at this time of year. It is so easy to become distracted by the shopping, the stressful traffic jams, and the endless parties that we miss out on the "peace on earth and good will to all people." "Wake up and don't miss out on the coming of Jesus!" is the first message of Advent.
When I was about ten years old, my daddy and I were invited to go on a father-son camping trip. We were going with four other fathers and sons to a rustic cabin on the Flint River. We would leave our school on Friday and return late on Sunday afternoon. I do remember overhearing my mother reminding my daddy that there was a special service at the church that Sunday night, and she expected us all to be there. Apparently, an actor was going around the South portraying Jesus and on Sunday night he would be at our church. My dad said it would not be a problem and off we went.
It was a good weekend. The cabin really was just a concrete block square building with only one room. There was no electricity or running water. We built fires, fished, hiked, and took turns shooting at targets with a twenty-two rifle. We stayed up very late and listened as our dads told ghost stories. It was a great time. We must have arrived home later-than-expected on Sunday because my mother was in a panic. We were supposed to be at church in just a few minutes, and there was barely time to shower and change clothes. She said the place would be packed and fretted that we wouldn't be able to get a seat. Finding a seat had never really been a problem before at our church except on Easter, but I do remember getting there and seeing a very large crowd. I guess a lot of people wanted to see Jesus.
After a couple of songs from the Cokesbury hymnal, the preacher introduced Jesus, and out he came--long beard, flowing hair, and wearing a white robe--just as I had always imagined. Well, that is all I remember because I immediately fell asleep. I had slept so little on the camping trip that my eyes just would not stay open. I never heard a word Jesus said. In a sense, that has haunted me for all these years. Jesus came to my home church, and I slept right through it.
What I want you to know today is that the season of Advent is a spiritual wake-up call. Through the reading of the scripture lesson, you can almost hear the alarm clock ringing.
Now, not only does Advent try to wake us up, but it also invites us to look in two directions--back upon the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and forward to Jesus' return as he brings God's kingdom on earth to fulfillment. Therefore, Advent always begins with a text that looks toward Jesus' return. In other words, we begin by looking deep into the future--to the end of history.
If we are going to stick with what the scriptures say about Christ's return, then the first thing we must say is that nobody knows the day or the hour of his return--I repeat, nobody! One of the most radical statements in the Bible is found in Matthew and Mark's account of Jesus' words in the temple: "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36) Did you catch that? Not even Jesus knew when the end of human history will come. Only the Father.
Lots of folks focus on Jesus' words in today's text: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." (Luke 21:32) People like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye have supposed that Jesus was speaking about the generation of people who saw the reconstitution of the state of Israel in 1948. In 1970, Hal Lindsey wrote a book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. On its pages, Lindsey cobbled together prophetic passages from the Old and New Testament that led to the prediction that Christ would return by the year 1988. The book sold over 28 million copies! Well, when 1988 came and went and Christ did not return, they merely adjusted their numbers to buy a few more years. Nearly twenty-five years later, we're still waiting. I think some people worry so much about these things because they want to prove that the Bible is true. If they can show that the Bible predicted something that would happen 2000 years later, they believe people will pay attention to it.
Now listen carefully. The Bible doesn't need proofs to make it true. The Bible reveals God to us through Jesus Christ and that makes it true. I would add that I believe the events Jesus predicted have already taken place. In the year 70 AD, the Roman army invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and the earth shook with violence. Jesus warned his disciples that life would be difficult for all who sought to serve God in his time, and that certainly was true. We have been living in the last days for nearly two thousand years. Christ could return at any time. No one knows.
Our suggested reading for this first Sunday in Advent goes on to proclaim that Christ's return is a source of hope. There are many who use the sights and sounds of the apocalypse to scare people into faith. However, this is not our Lord's way: "Now when you see these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Do you hear that? In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war and rumors of war, in the midst of oppression and poverty, in the midst of our own personal losses, we can raise our heads and look for the Lord because he is near. That is the message of Advent.
Let me see if I can get at it this way. In the beginning God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Where was God? In the darkness. Moses went up into the darkness that covered Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Where was God? In the midst of the darkness. On Easter morning, while it was still dark, Jesus rose from the dead. Where was God? In the darkness. Advent is a season in which we remember that we are a people of hope. We are the Christmas people. We sing to Emmanuel because God is with us. When we sense that we are lost in the darkness, Advent reminds us that we are not alone. The God of hope is with us. Jesus warns us not to get distracted by the worries of this world. Lift up your eyes and look upward toward God because even in the midst of difficult times our Lord comes to us.
When you get right down to it, that's really all the scriptures say about the end times: no one knows when it will come, but it does come, and it is a time of hope because God is present. Obviously, we mainline Protestants don't put much stock in the words of the doomsayers who predict that the second coming of Christ is imminent or that it is a time to be feared. However, we do put a great deal of stock in the way we prepare for his coming. How do we prepare? We prepare by living out our faith each day with a sense of urgency. Now you and I know that the celebration of Christmas has changed. What started out as a season of hope and promise and joy and peace has turned into a time of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists. And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take us months to pay off, and this empty feeling that suggests we missed something. Is this what we want to experience this season?
What if we prepared differently this year? Several years ago I came across a project called the "Advent Conspiracy." It was started by a group of Christians who discovered that Americans spend $450 billion each year buying Christmas presents. They also learned that the greatest health problem in the world today is the lack of clean water. It would cost $10 billion to solve that problem. They wonder--what if we bought one less Christmas gift this year--you know, the sweater that will never be worn, the candle that will never get lighted, or the knickknack that will get returned the day after Christmas? They wonder--what if we took the money saved by not buying that gift and gave it to help someone in need, like folks who need clean water? They wonder--since Christmas began with a group of people who worshiped Christ, what if we conspired together to begin this season of preparation by engaging fully in worship? What if we conspired to buy less? What if we conspired to give more? What if we conspired to love each other? You know what I mean. If you have a conflict with a family member or friend, offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation as quickly as possible. You don't let it simmer inside until it poisons your whole outlook on life and makes it uncomfortable to be in the other person's presence. Live peacefully with each other. What difference would it make in our life and our world? The "Advent Conspiracy" is designed to help us live well as we anticipate the coming of Christ.
And that's what the man who came to see me said: "We need to be talking about the second coming." He's right. The language shocks us into waking up. The Apostle Paul wrote:
The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:11)
Those are good words. So, let us wake up, be alert, and stay on guard. Lift up your eyes to the Lord and stand up to face him, for your redemption is drawing near....
Let us pray. Gracious God, for this season we are grateful. Wake us up. In the midst of the busy-ness of this season, help us to hear your voice, sense your presence, worship you, and serve you in both word and deed. This we pray in the name of the Jesus the Christ. Amen.