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Sermon for Sunday 2 December 2018

FIRST READING Jeremiah 33:14-16

14“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In 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. 16In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”


PSALM Psalm 25:1-10

1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 2Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. 3Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. 4Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 5Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 6Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. 7Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. 8He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly. 9All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. 10For your name’s sake, O Lord, forgive my sin, for it is great.


SECOND READING 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

9What thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 11Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.


GOSPEL Luke 21:25-36

25{Jesus said,} “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”



Once again, we’ve come to the beginning of another Liturgical year. Today is, of course, the First Sunday of Advent. And by way of reminder, Advent is a season of anticipation, of preparation and of penitence. In Advent, we’re once again reminded that we’re to be anticipating the Lord’s coming, not only as an innocent babe in a manger, but also of His sudden return. Advent is a season of preparation; preparing our hearts, and the world, for God’s kingdom. Advent is also a season of reflecting on our lives as disciples and of our Christian walk. This may be the reason why today’s gospel lesson for some, can be perceived as unsettling.
In our reading from Luke, Jesus seems to be describing the end of the world. Listen to again to His words: “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 . . .” Jesus’ words here paint some pretty vivid imagery. “Signs in the sun, moon and stars . . . nations in anguish at the roaring and tossing of the sea . . . people fainting from terror . . . heavenly bodies shaken . . .” Hollywood would have a great time with special effects to portray that scene.
Of course, it’s a scene that has been painted from many pulpits as a time of great terror. I may have told you before about the story of the minister who was describing this final day with great drama. “Thunder will boom,” he cried, “lightning will strike, rivers will overflow, the sky will be in flames! There will be mammoth storms, floods and earthquakes!” A little girl in the congregation looked up eagerly at her mother. “Mommy?” she whispered, “will I be let out of school that day?” Such a scene as that pastor was describing, is enough to disturb not only a small child, but mature adults as well.
It reminds me of the reaction that accompanied a well-known radio broadcast some 80 years ago. Most of you know the one I’m talking about even though you’re probably not old enough to have listened to it. In 1938 Orson Welles broadcast a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ story War of the Worlds. This broadcast was intended to sound like a report of an invasion of the Earth by Martians. The broadcast, which was carried all across the U.S., was so realistic that it almost caused a nationwide panic.
Actor John Barrymore was among those convinced that the Martians had landed. He managed to contain his fear, until it came to the point at which the invaders were allegedly marching down Madison Avenue. Rushing out to the kennel in which he kept his twenty prized St. Bernards, Barrymore flung open the gate and released the dogs. In great distress he shouted at them, “Fend for yourselves!” Now I’m certainly glad he was concerned about his St. Bernards, but I’m sure he felt quite foolish when the truth came out that it was simply a radio broadcast and that there was no invasion.
Of course, there have been several instances in history when Christian folks have gotten stirred up by some misled, would-be prophet, who had convinced them that the end of the world was imminent. Some of these good folks have sold their homes, left their jobs, neglected their responsibilities–all because they believed that the end was at hand. It’s interesting: Most of us think of Advent as that special season in which the church prepares to celebrate the coming of the Christ child at Christmas. It’s a season of joyous anticipation. But there’s a Second Advent in scripture, one that’s far more disturbing. It has nothing to do with snowflakes and visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.
Luke describes it in our lesson for the day: “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory . . .” That’s a mysterious image: “coming in a cloud with power and great glory . . .” It’s intended to be mysterious, but let’s see if we can add a tiny bit of clarity. Clouds are the biblical symbol of mystery and of the presence of God. “He is coming with the clouds,” says John in Revelation 1:7. “Lo, I am coming to you in a thick cloud,” said God to Moses on Mount Sinai. A cloud symbolizing the divine presence covered the tabernacle in the wilderness according to Exodus 40:34-36.
A cloud shrouded the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, a place where the presence of God dwelt according to Leviticus 16:2. And a cloud of glory, the very majesty of God, filled the temple of Solomon at its dedication in I Kings 8:10-11. We read of an even more familiar scene that takes place in the New Testament.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John with Him up on the mountain where He’s transfigured. Matthew tells us, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters–one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’” Then we read, “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’” (17:1-9). When the New Testament says that Jesus is coming in a cloud with power and great glory, it’s a powerful symbol of mystery and divinity. Yet it’s a symbol that many today do not understand.
On TV and in advertisements, we hear more and more about the cloud these days. However, the Bible’s language of a cloud and ours today is different. In today’s world, we associate the cloud with our computers. When tech companies say our data is in the cloud, or that you can work in the cloud, it has nothing to do with white fluffy things in the sky. Our documents and spreadsheets aren’t being stored on some big mainframe in heaven. Our data is being stored somewhere here on the earth—actually lots of “somewheres,” all over the world.
Take my electronic files for example. My brothers and I have linked computers here in North Carolina with computers in Arizona to create a family cloud. Not only are my sermons stored on my laptops, but also on hard drives in the building in the back yard and on storage devices in Arizona. And because I also post each week’s sermon on my webpage, these files are also stored on computers maintained by Amazon. I’m told that computer companies like Amazon and Google have built vast networks of servers housed in huge warehouses in widely scattered locations–some the size of a football field. Cloud computing is nothing more than working on or storing information on a collection of computers in different locations.
Somewhere I saw a cartoon of two extraterrestrials–two men from Mars, if you will. One of them was explaining a strange occurrence. He says, “According to this, the planet earth was populated by humans, then in 2012 they all moved to the cloud.” I know this talk of the cloud can be confusing to those of you who are not into computers. If you are, you’re not alone.
According to author Tom Friedman, a 2012 national survey by Wakefield Research . . . found that “most respondents believe the cloud is related to weather . . . For example, 51 percent of respondents, including a majority of Millennials, believe stormy weather can interfere with cloud computing.” Well, the Cloud techies talk about has nothing to do with the weather. It’s simply language associated with data storage and the how today’s Internet functions.
The Bible tells us that at the end of time Jesus will return in a cloud, but that doesn’t have anything to do with computers. When Luke says that Jesus is coming in a cloud with power and great glory, it’s the Bible’s way of saying that at the end of days, Google or Amazon won’t own the cloud. God will control the cloud and all the clouds that ever existed, and Christ will reign over all.
I say all this to assure you, that as faithful followers, we have nothing to fear. According to scripture, all of creation groans, (Rom. 8:22-24) waiting expectantly to not to see what Google will do next . . . or Amazon or Apple . . . but what God is going to do next. Now for those who see these Apocalyptic passages as unsettling, spoiler alert! We have nothing to fear. Anytime you read any of these end of time passages, I want you to remember two very important things. No matter how terrifying a picture these end-of-time Biblical passages paint, God is in control and God wins. The future belongs to God.
The people of Israel waited expectantly for the Messiah, and the early church, as do we, waited expectantly for Christ’s return to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The Christian life is an expectant life. It’s a life lived in anticipation that the promises of God will be fulfilled.
Dwight L. Moody used to tell a story about an optimistic and cheerful lady who was, nonetheless, a shut in, bedridden in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of a run-down building. There was no elevator in the building and here she was, lying there alone in a shabby room of this dilapidated apartment building. One of her friends came to see her one day and brought with her another friend. The second friend was from a wealthy family. They wanted to cheer up this bedridden lady, but as you are aware, sometimes these things work in reverse.
As they entered the building, the wealthy lady was struck by the austere and depressing surroundings. As they mounted the stairs to the second floor, it was almost more than she could handle. “Such a dark and filthy place,” she said to her friend. Her friend responded, “It’s better higher up!” They climbed the stairs to the third landing. “It’s even worse here,” she said. Her friend responded, “It’s better higher up.” Finally, they got to the fifth and final floor and entered the tiny and run-down apartment of this dear lady. But the lady’s face was glowing to see her friend and she was radiating with the love of Christ in her heart. The wealthier woman couldn’t ignore the awful surroundings and she said in a sympathetic way, not wanting to be mean, but kindly, “It must be difficult for you living here like this.” The lady smiled knowingly and said, “Yes, but it’s better higher up.” That’s the promise that Christians always live by. “It’s better higher up.”
Who knows what grand thing God may be doing at this very hour! No wonder that for more than 2000 years people have been trying to read the fig trees, trying to analyze the seasons, trying to see the signs, trying to determine when God’s promises will be fulfilled. It’s a futile effort, to be sure. Jesus says no man knows the hour, (Mark 13:36) no one knows what’s in the mind of God, not even the angels, but we keep trying.
People are always looking for signs concerning Christ’s return. We don’t know when that time will be, but the Bible gives us ample warning that it is coming. As Christians, we live in anticipation that God will do a good work and that God will fulfill all His promises. Second, we live in anticipation because we also know God does not forget His own.
Much of the New Testament was written during the time of terrible persecution. Christians were burned alive in Nero’s gardens and thrown into the gladiator pits. To be a Christian believer was a test of real courage and endurance. Much of the New Testament was written to the believers to say: “Hold on! God has not forgotten us. He will return.”
While we celebrate the Advent season, our Jewish friends will be celebrating Hanukkah. Their celebration is a celebration of lights, like ours. They will be lighting each candle in a menorah, a nine branched candle holder. Hanukkah is the remembrance of an event that took place before Jesus’ birth. This event occurred during a time of Roman oppression, when after an impressive fight to recapture the temple at Jerusalem, the Jewish people wanted to relight the menorah at the altar and to keep it going 24 hours a day. But they had no candles.
Instead they used the purest olive oil. Unfortunately, they only had enough oil to last one day. They knew that it takes eight days to prepare more olive oil of that purity. Undaunted, however, they lit the menorah on the first day and filled it with a one-day supply of oil. They believed that by faith it would last until more oil could be produced. It did! The one-day supply burned for eight days.
Miraculously, the menorah didn’t go out. Hanukkah, for our Jewish friends, is a sign in their history that God does not forget His people. This is something God’s people have always taken comfort in. It’s reassuring for us to know that whenever life grows uncertain, dangerous, or difficult, we can look to the clouds, as it were. God promises to never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). The Christian life is an expectant life, waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, remembering that God will never forsake His own. Ours is also an expectant faith for one more reason, and Advent is central to that reason.
Advent also reminds us that the victory is already ours. Now this is a statement that we need to really think about. Theologians will, from time to time, use the phrase realized eschatology. This is a fancy way of saying that, as Children of God, we can live now in the light of Christ’s final victory, even though that victory is yet to be won. TO better explain, let me give you an example.
Dan Bauman in his book, Dare to Believe, illustrates how we’re to experience tomorrow’s joy, today. He explains that at Christmas time as a youth, he always did a lot of snooping, trying to find the gift-wrapped presents and figure out what was in them. Some of you may be guilty of this same behavior. One year, Dan said he found a package that was easy to identify. The contents were golf clubs.
His mother couldn’t put enough wrapping paper on the clubs to disguise them from her sneaky son. Bowman makes this observation: “When Mom wasn’t around, I would go and feel the package and shake it and pretend I was on the golf course. The point is, I was already enjoying the pleasure of the future event, namely the unveiling. It had my name on it. I knew what it was. Only Christmas would reveal it in all its fullness.” That’s realized eschatology–enjoying the wonder and the majesty of the victory, even though it’s yet to be accomplished.
We live in a God-invaded world. Even though the final victory has yet to be won, we live in anticipation and assurance. So, Advent is here. Let the watch begin. Bishop William H. Willimon says he once read in the newspaper of a woman–he thinks she lived in Louisiana–who had raised about a dozen foster children despite her meager income as a domestic worker. Why did she do it? She replied, “I saw a new world a-comin.”
I believe we all need to have that same kind of expectancy in our life. Jesus said, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory . . .” Jesus’ return has nothing to do with Google’s or Amazon’s cloud. This will be God’s cloud and when He comes, everything that is bad about this world will be swept away and only God’s love and mercy will be left, and we, as children of God, will have every tear wiped away and joy will reign over all.

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