Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent 1: Always be Ready

For those many of you who have been requesting that I post my sermons, here you go (audio version at bottom).
Today we begin the season of Advent. But we must remember that the Christian life is an ongoing advent experience. We are always looking head. We are called to wait preparedly for the dawn. The darkness of the world surrounds us, but our faces are lit by the approaching light of Christ. And one of our best resources in this preparation is the illumination of God’s truth in his written Word. So I commend scripture reading to you this Advent.

During this season, we hear a lot about Bible prophecy and the coming of Jesus Christ—both his first Advent and his glorious second Advent yet to come. Saint Peter the Apostle said it so well in his first Letter: “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Pet 1:10-11). They did this because the purpose of Bible prophecy is to prepare God’s people to be a part of the unfolding of his plan of salvation.

Saint Paul says that our salvation (which he likens to the coming of Christ) is growing closer day by day. Our salvation is not some event in the past, but is the fulfillment of our destiny in the future. We must embrace it. So even while we live in darkness, we must cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light—to live as we would on the Day of Judgment.

Judgment Day must happen because God will triumph. He will judge the living and the dead in righteousness and truth, for he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. The reading from Isaiah 2:1-5 talked about the triumph of Peace at on the new earth. All the people in God’s kingdom will live in harmony and peace; they will beat their swords into plowshares, and war will be no more.

The reading from Romans 13:8-14 talked about the triumph of Light on the new earth. The people of God will be illumined by the true light of heaven. They shall know themselves and the Lord as he is, and live in the perfect fellowship of holiness with Christ. But these triumphs must come through judgment.

That is, society will not grow ever sophisticated until wars and conflict simply cease. Human beings will not naturally grow in wisdom until they evolve beyond their tendencies toward sin. No, God will reign over the earth by his power and might and he will judge the world by his righteousness and truth. His final victory will come by intervening in human history, setting the world straight and sweeping away all that is not holy.

But of course, sin does not want to be rooted out. The nature of sin is rebellion and conflict. The devil will fight against God’s plan till the end. But he is no match for the power of God. The Lord will triumph, and his people will be saved through this tribulation. Notice that God’s people will be saved through tribulation, not from tribulation. As a child of God, you are like a soldier caught in the cross-hairs of evil. The sinful antagonism of the world against God will be taken out on you, on the People of God.

Saint Paul warns that all who desire to live a godly life shall suffer persecution. And Jesus himself told us the world will hate those who bear his name. “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake.”

No one likes suffering and tribulation, so we should perhaps not be surprised that some Christians may fall into the trap of escapism. Perhaps, they think, the great tribulation is not so much the climactic rebellion of evil, as it is God’s own judgment upon the lost. This would mean that the righteous would need to be spared, and the only way for that to happen would be for God to remove them from this world-wide tribulation. The idea is called the rapture of the Church.
This doctrine and the theological view of history that goes with it called “dispensationalism” originated with the John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. His teaching caught on in the mid 1800s in fundamentalist circles through the Niagara Bible Prophecy Conferences and was later popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible.

That school of thought prospered again around the close of the 20th Century, especially in Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind novels and films. But the teaching is unknown in the Bible, the creeds, the Church Fathers, the Protestant reformers, and all Christian denominations for 18 centuries.

But, you may ask, doesn’t Paul say that we shall be "caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"? Yes he does (1 Thess 4:17), but Jesus also said that the trumpet would sound and the angels would gather his people when all see the Son of Man in the clouds. So this is certainly not a secret event. And what is the point of meeting the Lord in the air? It is for him to take us up to heaven? Or for us to escort him to earth at his glorious return?

The point of gathering God’s people is not to take the Church out of the world. Jesus prayed at Gethsemane, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world.” The point is that the saints accompany Christ into the world; he does not return alone. He comes with an entourage.
At that time, when a dignitary would enter a town, the people would go out of the city to welcome him, and escort him into the city (like a parade). So it is with Christ’s return to earth in glory as judge of the living and dead.

That’s why in the old Prayer Book, the gospel passage describing Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week with the people going out to meet him, waiving palms, crying hosanna to the king, and his subsequent exercise of judgment in cleaning house at the Temple was read on the first Sunday of Advent. It was a vivid portrayal of the Second Coming.

In the Gospel reading today (Matthew 24:37-44), Jesus compared his return to the flood of Noah. Just as in Noah’s time, people will be eating and drinking and marrying. The point Jesus makes here is not that the world will be filled with evil as it was in the days of Noah (which is true); It will be completely unexpected and take them by surprise.

People will be going on about their daily lives, giving no attention to God, but then (when he is least expected) the Son of Man will appear in the clouds. A few verses before today’s reading, Jesus described the event as a flash of lightning—immediate, sudden, brilliant, and unmistakable.

Jesus says that the righteous and the wicked will be divided by that event. There will be two men in the field—one will be taken, and the other left. There will be two women at the mill—one taken, the other left. Now, those who believe in the rapture might say, “See! Here is the proof. We will be taken out of the world.”

But think carefully. Jesus is making a comparison here to the flood of Noah’s day, not to the ark. The wicked were swept away by the flood waters, while the righteous (like Noah and his family) remained—they were “left behind” in safety. You want to be left behind, not swept away. In the final judgement, the wicked will perish, and the righteous will be rewarded with eternal life.

 So Jesus says, “Watch for it.” Because you do not know when that day is coming. He doesn’t tell us to try to figure out when he’ll return so we can be ready at that moment. Instead, he wisely tells us, “ALWAYS BE READY.”

How do you get ready? Read the Word of God. Examine your conscience. Go to confession. How do you get ready? Amend your ways. Live in love and charity with all people. How do you get ready? Cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Always be ready for the return of the Lord. Our salvation is closer now than when we first believed.