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Advent 1 Sermon for 29 November 2015

FIRST READING Jeremiah 33:14-16

14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”


PSALM Psalm 25:1-10

1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 3 Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous. 4 Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 6 Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD. 8 You are gracious and upright, O LORD; therefore you teach sinners in your way.
9 You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way. 10 All your paths, O LORD, are steadfast love and faithfulness to those who keep your covenant and your testimonies.

SECOND READING 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. 11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

GOSPEL Luke 21:25-36

[Jesus said:] 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”


In one of his books, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar tells the story of NFL quarterback Jeff Hostetler, formerly with the New York Giants. At the beginning of his career, Jeff was a back-up quarterback. By the end of his seventh season, he had thrown less than two hundred passes, and none of them had any bearing on the outcome of a game. Then Phil Simms, the starting quarterback of the Giants, went down with an injury, and coach Bill Parcels looked to his back-up quarterback on the bench and said, “Okay, Jeff, it’s your turn.” Jeff ran out onto the field and led his team to victory not only in that game but in the remaining games of the season including the Super Bowl.
However, as Zig Ziglar points out, there was more to the story than that. During those seven years Jeff was in waiting, he “threw thousands of passes through a swinging tire. He worked with his wide receivers and running backs in countless practice sessions, sharpening and honing his skills. He lifted tons of weights, did hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, jogged many, many miles, and did numerous wind sprints. He literally spent hundreds of hours poring over the playbook, studying not only his own offense and defense but the defenses of the opposing teams.” When Coach Parcells turned to Jeff Hostetler and said, “Okay, Jeff, it’s your turn,” Jeff was ready.
This week we transitioned from the season of Pentecost to the season of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation. It’s a time of getting ready. The Latin derivative of the word Advent means literally “to come.” During these 4 weeks preceding Christmas, we focus our attention on the coming of Christ into our world. We consider the words of the prophets and their expectations for the coming Messiah. We ponder the meaning also of those texts in the New Testament, that speak of Christ’s return to rule, to judge, and to save at the end of time. It’s a reminder that we live in a time when we’re surrounded by signs.
There was a song from the sixties that said, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/ Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” I know some of you, here today, grew up in an era before Interstate highways. Most travel back then was done on two lane roads. Along those roads would often be posted a series of five small red signs with white letters. These small signs contained a humorous poem on four of them with a 5th sign reserved for their sponsor. I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about. The famous Burma-Shave signs. For those too young to remember, here are some examples of those signs: Drove Too Long/ Driver Snoozing/ What Happened Next/ Is Not Amusing. Burma-Shave. Around The Curve/ Lickety-Split/ Beautiful Car/ Wasn’t It? Burma-Shave. And My Favorite: The Midnight Ride/ Of Paul for Beer/ Led to a Warmer/ Hemisphere. Burma-Shave. I’ll let you mull that one for a moment. As the song says, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign . . .” So for a few moments let’s talk about signs.
Last Christmas, a woman named Patricia had planned to attend a family reunion in Florida. It had been years since the members of her family had all seen each other. Many of them were living in different parts of the world and had started families of their own. Some had never met each other. This formerly close knit family decided on a reunion to help the younger ones get to know their relatives better through a weekend of fellowship. Patricia had been looking forward to this event. She had even helped to plan the reunion. Long distance telephone conversations had brought all the plans together and the weekend of the reunion was upon her.
Instead of flying down to Florida, Patricia decided to drive. It would not only save her on the airfare but also give her a time to explore and discover new things and places along the way. But there was a problem. Patricia liked talking on her cell phone while she drove and listening to music on her iPod. Fortunately, Patricia reached Florida safely, but the distractions of her high tech toys caused her to miss a sign for an important turn. Before long, she was lost–unaware of what to do next. She began to worry. This was an event she didn’t want to miss. She’d been looking forward to the reunion for quite some time. But because she missed that sign, she missed her turn and therefore she missed most of the reunion, not getting there until after some of her relatives had already left. While she was happy that she got to see the remaining relatives, she was heartbroken that she missed others and the joy of the reunion itself. She missed out on the main event because she missed a sign. Signs are important.
Imagine trying to navigate your way in an area unknown to you without signs or a cell phone app or a GPS for that matter. As a young boy I was taught how to use a compass and topographical map in the wilderness, but these don’t do much good on the highway or in the cities. Signs keep us aware of our surroundings; they help with directions; and they even help us to keep safe by offering warnings to us. To ignore signs is risky. It can sometimes be quite costly.
The year was 1941. Two American soldiers observed something unusual on their radar. They reported it to their supervisor, a rather young, inexperienced Lieutenant. It was a peaceful Sunday morning, nobody else was around but this young Lieutenant. Thinking what they had seen on radar was planes on maneuvers from California, he said, “Don’t worry about it.” But they should have worried about it. What these two soldiers had seen were the first signs of 353 planes on their way to Pearl Harbor. They reached there approximately two hours later on Dec. 7th, 1941. “Don’t worry about it!” said their superior officer. A very critical sign was missed. And a tragic, devastating air attack took place. Signs are important.
Our lesson for today begins like this: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In this passage, Jesus notes that there are signs that will precede the coming of the “Son of Man.”
Two weeks ago we looked at a similar passage in which we emphasized that Christ said that no one, not even He Himself, knew when that day would be. And yet, He said, there will be signs. These signs will cause people to be terrified. The signs include the sun, moon, and stars being shaken and the sea roaring and being tossed. The world will experience an unprecedented state of chaos. Things will be out of control. It’s a disturbing passage that can frighten the uninformed. But take note what Jesus says about these events.
First, Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” While this might, on the surface, sound ominous, it isn’t. Jesus isn’t saying that we should “Duck! Run for cover! Go crazy with fear!” He says, “Stand up and lift up your heads . . . your redemption is drawing near.”
As a child growing up, the pastors of the churches I attended used to scare us by warning us that Jesus could appear at any time, and woe betide them if Jesus turned up and found them at a movie theater! I grew up with a constant fear, every time I committed even the smallest of infractions, that Jesus would return and I’d miss the rapture; that I’d be left behind. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there are still those kind of preachers around who use fear as a motivator, but, fortunately not as many as there used to be. The bottom line is that if we love and serve Jesus faithfully, the thought of Him coming any time, whether at Christmas or at the end of time ought to be an occasion for rejoicing, not being afraid. “Joy to the world,” wrote Isaac Watts, “the Lord is come.”
It’s like a story one pastor tells about his seminary days. It seems there was no gymnasium on the seminary campus, so the seminarians played basketball in a nearby public school. The janitor, an old man with white hair, would wait patiently until the seminarians had finished playing. Invariably he sat there reading his Bible. One day one of the seminarians went up to him and asked, “What are you reading?” The old janitor replied, “The Book of Revelation.”
With a bit of surprise the seminarian asked, “The Book of Revelation? Do you understand it?” “Oh yes,” the old man answered. “I understand it.” “You understand the Book of Revelation!” the seminarian replied, quite surprised. “What does it mean?” Very quietly that old janitor answered, “It means that Jesus is going to win.” That’s all that matters to a child of God. Jesus is going to win. And that has to be good news. No one loves us like Jesus loves us. “When these things begin to take place,” Jesus says to us, “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus next tells a parable.
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.” This is a passage of comfort. When we see the world going crazy, we’ll know that the kingdom of God is near. As theologian Marcus Borg puts it, “The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of this world were not . . . It’s a world of economic justice and peace, where the nations beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, every family has its own vine and fig tree and no one is made to live in fear.” Don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like a great place to live. A place where “no one is made to live in fear.” That means no more cancer. No more foreclosures on homes. Nobody unemployed. No more war. No more sickness. No more pain. I’m looking forward to that! But sadly not everyone feels the same.
By in large, we’re such a fearful people. Last year one man died in this country from Ebola, and you would have thought the whole world was collapsing. We live in a time when there’s more hope for people who are sick than there has ever been before, but we’re more fearful of disease than any generation before us. And we worry about the economy too. Certainly, the recession caused us to tighten our belts a bit, but the truth is that we live in homes twice the size of those our parents lived in, yet somehow we’ve got the idea that the economy will collapse at any moment. But this isn’t the only thing that causes fear in our lives; with good reason we’re worried about events in the Middle East.
Compare the threat from Isis, as terrible as Isis is, with that of Hitler and we have to admit that we have no idea how well we have it. And yet, to watch the cable news networks, you’d think the whole world is about to collapse. But think about this passage. To paraphrase Jesus: “When we see the world going crazy, we’ll know that the kingdom of God is near.” What we need to hear on this first Sunday in Advent is, Jesus’ words to us, isn’t a call for fear, but a call to faith.
Of course, there will always be bad things happening in this world, but we’re not to give into despair. Everything is under God’s control. And God will never forsake us. A few verses later Christ says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” This means that we can trust every promise that Christ ever made to us. This includes the promise that, no matter what happens, He will give us a peace that passes understanding . . . if we simply trust Him. We can trust His every promise . . . including the promise that He will never forget us or forsake us . . . including the promise that He has prepared a mansion for us, that where He is so shall we also be. Then He does add a word of caution.
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life . . .” Surely He’s not talking about us. I can’t imagine that any of you will be drinking or carousing or worrying during this holiday season. Of course not. I say that in good humor of course. What Christ is saying to us is that we live in a world of freedom. Some of us will bring heartache on ourselves or those we love by unhealthy behavior. Some of us will clog up our veins with unhealthy foods, or put stress on our hearts by unhealthy anxiety during this holiday season. But that’s not His will for us. It’s simply a realistic appraisal of human nature.
“Be always on the watch . . .” is his final word to us. Like a child waiting for Christmas morning, be on watch. Like a couple awaiting the birth of their first child, be on watch. Like a family waiting for the return of their soldier after receiving word that they’re safe and headed home, be on watch.
Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. These young military men flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night. When his buddies dropped Robbins off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage–”Welcome Home Dad!” But how did they know?
No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates that when he walked into the house, the kids, half dressed for school, screamed, “Daddy!” His wife Susan came running down the hall–she looked terrific–hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. “How did you know?” he asked. “I didn’t,” she answered through tears of joy. “We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.”
That should be our attitude toward Advent. This is a season for waiting on tiptoe. Our redemption is drawing near. The kingdom is drawing near. Christ’s words will never pass away. We can trust His promises forever. Therefore, “Be always on watch.”

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