Advent—A Season of Hope (and boy, do we need hope in this season!)

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Advent 2A, December 4, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12.

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

Today is the second Sunday of Advent and we have lighted the second purple candle on our wreath that represents the OT prophets. As Fr. Sang reminded us last week, Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, and means coming or arrival. It is a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (advent) of Christ in his Incarnation, and also looks ahead to his final advent as judge and ruler at the end of time. As Christians, that promise should give us hope. But why? And how can we have confidence that God’s promises are trustworthy and true? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

What do you think about when you think of God’s judgment? Most of us, I suspect, see God’s judgment as a bad thing. After all, we read passages like our OT and gospel lessons this morning and we should rightly tremble. Both prophets warn us that God is coming to judge his world and sweep away the wicked. Given that we are all sin-infected, we rightly wonder and worry about our own fate. Will we be swept away in God’s righteous judgment and wrath?

But this view of God and his judgment is skewed and one-dimensional. Behind it is the assumption that God is basically an angry God, terminally irritated over our behavior and bent on whacking us up side the head the minute we get out of line. This view of God, however, has no basis in Scripture, and it tells us more about ourselves and our fears than about God. To be sure, there is a negative dimension involved with God’s judgment. Evil and evildoers will be dealt with, and severely. But not because God is some angry deity bent on destroying us and delighting in it when he does. That is a pagan notion of God and we must adamantly reject it.

No, as Christians, we should humbly see God’s righteous judgment as both a good and bad thing. When Christ returns, the wicked and evildoers should rightly be terrified of God’s judgment because it will be aimed at them. Thus the ubiquitous call to repentance by God’s prophets, who serve not so much as seers of the future but as God’s spokespersons. This call to repent itself gives us insight into the heart of God because God does not take pleasure at the death of anyone, not even the wicked (Ezekiel 18.22, 32; 33.11), and we should pay attention to this because it reminds us that the heart of God beats with love for us, not anger. The reason God must come in judgment is to rid his good world gone bad of the sources of its corruption so as to restore it and us to our original goodness, and it is critical that we keep this big picture narrative of the Bible in mind at all times.

We see the logic of how the biblical narrative works in our OT lesson this morning. Isaiah tells his people that God’s promised Messiah, God’s anointed one, is coming to judge the earth and its people. The Messiah will be unlike any other human ruler. He will be totally righteous and uniquely equipped to judge God’s world and its people. He will decide with equity for the meek of the earth (a good thing). He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. At first blush striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and killing the wicked sound like bad things. But keep in mind the big picture narrative of the Bible. Notice carefully what happens after God’s Messiah executes judgment on the wicked and all the dark forces that corrupt God’s good creation and creatures. New creation springs forth! The wolf will lie down with the lamb and formerly deadly creatures will cease being deadly. In other words, the original harmony of nature before the Fall will be restored and the forces of death and destruction will be either  neutralized or destroyed! The result? The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. But what does that mean? After all, the waters are the sea! It means that God’s human image-bearing creatures will stop worshiping the idols that have corrupted and dehumanized us, and once again return to worshiping the one true and living God so as to be able to perfectly reflect God’s image out into God’s good creation as we rule wisely over it. Justice and peace and harmony break out, not to mention joy and health and contentment and life! God’s judgment has brought about a new world, perfectly beautiful and full of God’s goodness. No wonder the psalmist predicts that the heavens and earth and all that are in them will rejoice when God comes to judge his good but corrupted creation (see Psalm 96.10-13, 98.4-9, etc.)! God’s judgment results in God’s world and its creatures, especially God’s image-bearing creatures, being healed and restored to their intended goodness! Who, except the most hardened and inveterate of evil doers, would not long for this?

And here is where we must also be crystal clear in our thinking about sin. Sin of any kind distorts our ability to be God’s image-bearers and when that happens, disorder, corruption, and chaos result, and our lives and God’s world are beset by all kinds of nasty things, especially the ultimate evil of death. God’s promised judgment of his world through God’s Messiah is therefore a good thing to be desired by those of us who want to be God’s people in Christ. God judges because God loves and wants to see his created order run in the manner God created it to run. When that happens—and it will not fully happen until the new heavens and earth come with the return of our Lord Jesus—there will be no more death or sorrow or sickness or sighing (cf. Revelation 21.1-7). Again, God wants that for all of his creation because God loves us. Let us be clear and bold in proclaiming that to each other and to the world around us, my beloved.

But how do we know God’s promises are true? How do we know they are not just wishful human thinking? And how do we know that God’s character truly is defined by love and not something else? Here Paul helps us in our epistle lesson, reminding us that all Scripture was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement Scripture offers, we might have hope. Hope, I remind you, is not wishful thinking. In the parlance of Scripture, especially the NT, hope is the sure and certain expectation of things to come. And we develop that sure and certain expectation by engaging the Scriptures through regular reading and study of them. There are other means of grace, of course, like worship, partaking in the eucharist, and mutual Christian fellowship, but I want us to focus on reading and studying the Scriptures today.

In all our lessons this morning, we see how Scripture can encourage us to help us develop steadfastness to meet the difficulties of life that confront us. Everyone here knows how easy it is for us to become discouraged because all is not yet right with God’s world or our lives. But as we have seen, God promises to put things to rights through his Messiah and his people. We can believe these promises because we see them played out in history. For example, God promises through his prophet Isaiah to give his people a Messiah to judge the world and bring about God’s promised new creation. And of course as Christians, we believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah (or Christ) and that evil, sin, and death have been defeated in his death, resurrection, and ascension. More about that in a moment. We see God’s promise of giving his people a Messiah being fulfilled in the announcement of John the baptizer. John announces that the kingdom of heaven (God’s kingdom) is at hand because God’s promised Messiah, Jesus, is at hand. But unlike previous prophecies, astonishingly, God’s Messiah would be God himself come as a human being to bring judgment on the corrupting forces and people who defiled God’s good creation. To be sure, John himself did not fully understand the prophecies he spoke. We know that because he would later send his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the promised Messiah (Matthew 11.2-6). But full understanding on the prophet’s part is not required for God’s prophecies to come true. Jesus did appear as promised, pronouncing that God’s kingdom was at hand in his coming.

But how do we know Jesus was the real deal? After all, instead of bringing about the great and terrible day of the Lord’s judgment, Jesus went to the cross. This was a sign of a failed Messiah, not the real deal. So why did the first Christians come to believe that in Jesus’ death God had somehow dealt with the forgiveness of our sins and the evil that corrupts and defiles God’s world and creatures? Because of the resurrection. When Jesus burst forth from the tomb on that first Easter Sunday, his followers soon realized that God’s promises of new creation and new life had been realized, albeit only partially. The full consummation of God’s victory over evil, sin, and death would have to wait until our Lord’s return and the resurrection of the dead. And that, of course, has not yet happened. But given the reliable track record of God’s promises to heal and restore his creation, we can have confidence that Jesus’ promise to return and consummate God’s victory over sin and the dark powers will surely be fulfilled as well. That’s the whole point behind the Revelation to John. Be awake. Stay alert. Things may look as dark as they can be, but the forces of darkness, including the resident sin in all of us, have been defeated and we have been reconciled to God so that we can expect to enjoy God’s new world with the rest of the redeemed in Christ, thanks be to God! This is our Advent hope, my beloved. Do you believe it? Do you live your lives with that hope always at the forefront of your thinking? One thing is certain. If you do not know the overarching story of Scripture, of God’s plan to rescue us and his world from the clutches of sin and evil, you will never have a real hope that will encourage and sustain you during the times you must walk through dark valleys. Put another way, not knowing your story is like not knowing your own family’s story. It must impoverish you.

So if you are struggling with hopelessness and fear and despair over the state of affairs in your life and/or this world, do yourself a favor. Pick up a good study Bible and join (or start) a Bible study and learn the story of how God promises to defeat all that corrupts and sickens and dehumanizes us and his world. You will have opportunities to do that in the coming new year as part of St. Augustine’s. Read the Scriptures to develop the confidence that you can trust God’s promises in the power of the Spirit, that everything will indeed turn out right in the end, at least for God’s people in Christ. And let that hope sustain you as you embody the love of God for you to others. Is this easy? Of course not. We live in a world that is hostile to God and his people, and we can therefore expect to suffer by living as God’s healed and redeemed people in Christ. But if we want to live a meaningful life, we must resolve to stop worshiping the idols that we do, idols like money, sex, power, and self, and learn to worship the one true and living God, the God who went to the cross for us so that we can find healing and forgiveness and real purpose for living. In other words, we must bear the fruit of repentance.

In closing, Advent is the time for us to focus on God’s promised future for us, confident that it will come about because of God’s past actions, most notably in coming to us as Jesus, to fulfill God’s promises. That is the hope of the Good News we are to live and proclaim, especially during this season of Advent—and also for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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