Be Alert!

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37; Psalm 80:1-7.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s, and happy new year! Today, of course, is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Church. For those of you interested, that means today we start the second year (Year B) of the three year lectionary cycle and for those of you who read the Daily Office Lectionary, we start again with Year 1, having just finished Year 2.

We get the word, “Advent” from the Latin word, “adventus,” which means “coming.” It is a time of preparation and anticipation as we await with eager anticipation the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ on Christmas. But Advent is also a time when we await our Lord’s Second Coming and it is this event that I want to focus on today. 

This morning we light the first candle on the Advent wreath, signifying hope. The NT word for hope is elpis and it means something different than the way we usually use the word “hope” today. We might use the word hope something like this: “Gee, I hope I get a lot of presents for Christmas,” or “Gee, I sure do hope Fr. Kevin doesn’t preach one of his long sermons today.” When we use hope like this, we really mean that we wish for something to happen (or not happen), don’t we? But the writers of the NT used hope in a different way to mean a confident expectation that something was definitely going to happen, an expectation based on trust and faith in God’s mighty acts in Christ. So when the NT speaks of having hope in Christ, it does so with a great confidence, not as wishful thinking. 

Why do I bring this up? Because in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the eschaton, a big fancy word that refers to the end times, or as it is sometimes called, “the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31, RSV). It is a time that will be inaugurated by our Lord’s Second Coming. It will involve judgment of our broken and fallen world but it will also be a time of renewal when the Lord gathers up his own to be with him forever. And so I ask you. Do you look forward to Christ’s return with hope or fear his coming again? How you truthfully answer that question will tell you a lot about the nature and basis of your faith and your relationship with Christ.

I confess there was a time in my own faith journey when I wasn’t at the place I am now, and when I heard passages like today’s Gospel lesson and its parallel passage in Matthew that we heard last week, the one where the sheep and the goats were separated, it struck fear in my heart because I was convinced I was a goat rather than a sheep. After all I had most of the characteristics of a goat. I can be quite stubborn and hard-headed, and sometimes even smell like one. I knew too well the darkness in my own heart and realized I wasn’t living up to the high standards and lofty expectations of being a “good Christian.” In other words, I was still trying to do the impossible—earn my way into heaven. My faith was based on me rather than on Jesus.

Where is God’s Grace?

But there is no good news in that, is there, because my hope was based on a works-righteousness instead of having a sure and certain hope in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. That is why this time of Advent is so important for us and we dare not push it aside in our eager haste to get to Christmas. For you see, in Advent we anticipate the wondrous and awesome event of the Incarnation, the time when the eternal and living God put on our flesh and came to live with us. In taking on our flesh and dying for us, God once again reaffirmed the worth and value of humanity in a most powerful way. Because God loves us so passionately, he was willing to become one of us and do what was necessary to give each one of us a chance to live with him forever. All we have to do is believe the promise and trust that the One who made it is indeed trustworthy and true. It is ours for the taking.

But that is not the end of the story, is it, because we Christians know that we are living in the “already-not yet,” a period of time in which God has defeated evil on the cross but a time in which his plan of salvation and redemption has not been fully consummated. We don’t have to look very far, either at ourselves or the world around us, to know that sin, suffering, evil, brokenness, sickness, and death remain. The NT speaks of this time as the “last days,” the time between Jesus’ first and second coming. 

As John reminds us in the prologue of his Gospel (John 1:1-16), at Jesus’ first coming, he was not recognized universally and fully for who he is. But as our Gospel lesson reminds us today, when he comes again, Jesus will be clearly and fully revealed and known to everyone as true Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. True, the NT speaks of judgment when Jesus comes again, but did you notice the hope that is implied in it and virtually every other biblical passage that talks about judgment in the end times? When Jesus comes again, all of creation will be redeemed and a new heaven and a new earth will be formed. We whom Christ has called will get new resurrection bodies (not some disembodied form of existence) and live forever with him in a world where there will be no more sorrow or sickness or infirmity or tears or decay or evil or death (see, e.g., Isaiah 65; Revelation 21; 2 Peter 3:10-13). What a marvelous affirmation of the creation story we find in Genesis, where, after each day of creation God looked around and declared what he had created good! What a splendid ultimate hope we find for those of who are in Christ!

Where is the Application?

So what should be our response as we await our Lord’s Second Coming? Jesus himself tells us: Wait! Be alert and prepared because we do not know when that time will come! If we truly believe that in Christ, God has conquered sin and death for us and has promised to redeem all creation, then part of our response ought to be a heart full of gratitude, love, and humility for God doing the impossible for us and making it possible for us to live with him forever. We should be eager to find ways to humbly serve him and work for the welfare of all human beings and the renewal of creation, not because by doing so we will earn our way into heaven but because we are grateful for the great love and sacrifice that God has given us in Christ. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he told us to be alert and prepared.

Think about it. Who among us does not prepare for Christmas? Most of us wouldn’t even think about doing such a thing! Or think of your best beloved. Who among us is not eager to do things that please him/her as a tangible sign of our love for him/her?  How much more so should we respond to the Lord Jesus who has given himself for us so that we might live with him forever in redeemed and recreated world?

And lest we are worried that we cannot adequately show our love to Christ in our service to him, we get more Good News because as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, even while Jesus is away from us physically for a little while, he gives us everything we need to know him, love him, and serve him as we await his return in these “last days.” He does this, in part, through the Holy Spirit, when we take communion and feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, and when we engage him in Scripture every day.

Those of you who know me know that one of my Anglican heroes is John Wesley, that old Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley’s life perfectly illustrates what I have been talking about. In his younger days, Wesley was a zealot for doing good works but for all the wrong reasons. Like me in my younger days, he thought that doing good works would earn him his salvation. He had a faith that was Wesley-based, not Christ-based, and because Wesley knew the darkness of his own heart, he was driven to despair because he rightly knew that earning his own salvation was impossible. 

But the Lord kept working on Wesley and finally opened up his mind and heart to the truth—that he was saved by the grace of God, not by his own works and it made all the difference for him. For example, in one poignant diary entry later in his life, Wesley wrote about spending an entire winter’s day wading through ice water, mud, and snow to beg for clothes to give to the poor. Afterwards he got such a violent case of “the flux” (diarrhea or dysentery) that he almost died. But even in the midst of his life-threatening condition, Wesley could still write that he rejoiced in doing the work his Lord had called him to do. Do you see the change of dynamics? Same behavior (good works) but for a vastly different reason. Wesley understood that human beings have worth precisely because God took on our flesh to redeem us, and that our Lord calls each of us who love him to respond to his gracious love for us by serving him.

What about you? As the Church, Jesus calls each one of us to serve his Body. What are you doing to respond to our Lord’s love for you? How are you helping to serve Christ’s Body here at St. Andrew’s? Last week Fr. Ron talked about our desperate need for teachers and the other ministries here at St. Andrew’s. If you have not yet responded to Christ’s call to serve him in his church, what is holding you back? Whatever the reason don’t be afraid! Jesus has promised to be with you and help you in your service. You can be confident that he will also give you the power to keep alert, to do the work he calls you to do, and bless you with a joy in doing it that will blow your mind. After all, Jesus has conquered sin and death for you; surely he is willing and able to help you to humbly serve him. 

What is he calling you to do here and now? It may not be anything nearly as daunting as Wesley’s call, but whatever it is, it is every bit as worthy and you can trust that He is with you every day by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, after your work is finished here and he comes again in power and glory, he has promised to give you a new body, to live in a world free of evil and suffering, and to be you forever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity, and it is worthy of our best responses and efforts.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.