my last sermon at Lostine Presbyterian! enjoy:
TEXTS Jeremiah 33:14-16
I’ll bet that over half of the sermons all around the world probably begins with the same words today: What is Advent? The word “advent” means “coming” and it is the name for the four weeks before Christmas, during which we prepare ourselves. We reflect on what it means that God came to earth in Jesus, and we also reflect on the promised second coming of Christ. And there we have it – I’ve said it – the phrase of the day is “the second coming,” so prepare for controversy!
It is kind of inescapable, given the text provided by the lectionary. The prophecy is “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with power and great glory!” Christians have wondered about this for centuries, and it is actually a rather scary promise. It is not one you tell your kids as you tuck them in at night… we don’t say, “go to sleep, dearie, don’t worry about anything, because Jesus is coming very soon, with tsunamis and earthquakes and a big cloud of glory.” Imagine the nightmares they could have! But unfortunately a lot of Christians do use words like these to terrify people into obedience; and this definitely gives us a bad reputation. For example, take a Halloween phenomenon, which started in Texas in Assembly of God youth groups… it’s called “hell house,” and it is a haunted house taken to the extreme: real-life horrors like suicide and school shootings are acted out in your presence, and at the end of your trip through the house you are offered a chance to say “yes” to jesus. The hope is that your trip through the house will have scared you enough to make you commit your life to Christ. This kind of attempt to quite literally “scare the hell out of them” is just one thing that gives Christianity a bad name.
But we often wonder about the end of the world. You could fill many bookshelves with the volumes that ask when will it happen… is it coming in 2012? Those who think it is in 2012 may have their evidence to show for it, but we might do well to remember how many people thought the world would come to an end in 2000 – remember y2k? And let’s look back in history:
in 1975 the Jehovah’s witnesses forcasted
. In 1948 the creation of the nation of Israel was seen as a sign.
In 1910 Haley’s Comet was as a sign that the world would end within a year.
In 1843, William Miller and his whole group of “millerites” predicted the end, The year 1666 was a real ringer, not only because of the numbers, but as the Black Plague hit Europe, and the Great Fire of London struck.
How far shall I go back? The year 999 was also great for speculation.
We have been guessing for a long, long time.
So, you may be surprised, but I’m not going to preach the “get your crash helmets on” sermon today. I’m not going to try to scare the devil out of you, or prove to you that the signs are right and the end is near. What I want to talk about is not when, or where, or how scary it will be, but instead to emphasize the importance of trusting that Christ will come again in some way at some time.
See the thing is, Christianity would be a little easier if we didn’t believe in any kind of second coming. These are difficult words to imagine Jesus saying. But what is even more difficult is to deal with the fact that the promised coming still has not come. Jesus’ words included these: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” He would have said those in the year 33 AD. But by the time Luke wrote the gospel down, most scholars believe it was at least the year 70 AD So Luke wrote the gospel nearly 40 years later… The people who were adults when Jesus said those words were at LEAST elderly folks by that time, and I do believe that some of them would have died. It seems to me that this verse, about the generation not passing away, really should have been a tremendous scandal to the Christians! And if I were Luke, writing this gospel, I might have just left that one comment OUT, and made things easier for future Christians. But instead of leaving the difficult stuff out, he wrote it right in… and for generations, for centuries, scribes have been copying it over and over again, wondering what exactly Jesus meant, or maybe whether Jesus was wrong. Because by now many generations have passed away, and “all things” have not yet been accomplished. It is hard to trust Jesus’ prediction.
Now other people have had the same kinds of difficulty – we are not the only ones who have ever found it hard to trust God’s statements about the future. And we can even find some examples in the Bible…
There is a great story about the prophet Jeremiah trusting God. Here’s what happened: God told Jeremiah to go out and buy a field in what was then a war-torn land. Jeremiah did so, very obediently, paid the money, wrote up the deed, and displayed it before the gathered people, but then he went home and said, “hey God, what was that supposed to mean? Why would you ask me to waste seventeen shekels of silver on a field that I will clearly be unable to use, since it is on the brink of a violent invasion? What use is it to me, or even to you, God? I look like a fool, standing up in public and making my down payment on something that has no future.” But he put his trust in God’s instructions – he put his money into it too – and he waited for God’s answer. God, I’ll buy this field, but you’d better make it worth something.
I had the same reaction to our Old Testament lesson. Because there were promises made in that lesson, that didn’t seem likely to be fulfilled… listen for a bit. This is Jeremiah 33, and I’m going to go one verse past what Joyce read.
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. 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. AND thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the (levitical priests) shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.
So here is God’s future promise: that a king would come up, and would establish an ever-lasting dynasty of peace, with everlasting sacrifices in the temple. And Jeremiah probably believed this. But as the next few generations passed, and kept passing, and the people of Judah were still holding onto that promise, they probably started wondering. Hey God! Where is our promised Savior?? We believed this promise, but you’d better make it worth something.
And it is the same kind of question I have about Jesus’ words about the Second Coming: God, you promised it, so where is it now? -- And, God, are you really expecting us to buy this field – to lay our money down, stand up in public, and declare “I believe in this future, this future that shows no signs yet of being nearer now than it was in the year 1666?”
Jeremiah did buy his field, (and although he himself died in exile,) there WAS again peace on the land. His deed of property DID eventually turn out to be worth more than the parchment it was written on – although it had seemed so unlikely at the time of purchase. It was his statement of faith.
The people of Judah bought their field – they declared their statement of faith in the promise of a future King. They waited for centuries, kept their hope up, and kept looking for a descendant of David to climb back on the throne that had been destroyed. There were many hopefuls that were not successful. And then Jesus came… he came as a very unexpected answer to this promise; he did not wield a sword, or build a palace, or make war like other kings. He was indeed the promised Savior, but most people did not recognize him.
And what about us? We have waited many generations, centuries, millenia now, and have declared that we believe Christ will come again. We say it in the Apostle’s Creed. We have, so to speak, purchased the deed but I know that some of us are slightly embarrassed to have it in our possession and may be holding it behind our backs… yeah, I have this thing… yeah, I basically believe it… but no, I couldn’t explain it to you, and that’s why I’d rather we not talk about it.
I’m going to encourage us all to take it out from behind our backs and look at it, because I think believing in the Second Coming of Christ is an important part of the Christian faith. I’ve got three main reasons for this.
The first reason is: alertness. Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” If something is coming unexpectedly, then we stay awake for it. We have something to live for, and a reason to keep ourselves from getting weighed down by our burdens. I’m not saying “Jesus is coming – look busy!” because we know how long that will keep us going. But when we know that someone is checking on us, we sit up straighter, we are able to focus better, and we check ourselves with our own morals, making sure that we are on the right track. Alertness helps us to do our best and to be accountable.
The second reason is: the mystery of wondering about it. The Bible, in different places, talks about the clouds of glory, and about a slaughtered lamb, and about horsemen and all kinds of things. We wonder about it: what will it really look like? Some people may wonder: did Christ already come, and we missed him? Others may say, “he’s coming already! Not with a great show of lightning, because he’s going to come to the world IN US, through Christ being in our hearts.” There is Biblical basis to believe different things like this. With all these different accounts in play, we may not know how, when, or what this will look like. Having the right answer is not the important thing here – in fact, I’d say acknowledging that we might NOT have the right answer is ITSELF the important thing. We have to stay humble and open in the face of the mystery. We should remember too that at Jesus’ time, people had specific expectations about what the messiah would be, and that he surprised them all. It is important to be open to new interpretations, and be willing to be surprised by God’s creative answer to the promise.
The third reason is that we ought to have a goal outside of ourselves. It is tempting for Christians, especially in such a strong congregation as this, to believe that what God wants of us is to keep things going… to keep the lights on, keep the anthems and the sermons coming every week, maintain our cherished traditions, and make sure what we provide for our grandchildren what our grandparents provided for us. This is all well and good, EXCEPT for when it becomes our primary aim. Then it becomes a false idol. When we feel so comfortable and secure in our church home, we may forget that it is only a temporary home, and that it is not eternal, and as Rick Warren so kindly hammers into us on just about every page of The Purpose-Driven Life, that it really is “not about us.” This is when we need Christ to interrupt us! To come knocking at the door! To burst into our lives and show us that there are far better things in store. We of course may be doing God’s work in our own corner of the world, but God’s plan is for the complete redemption of all creation. Here’s how I look at it:
Christ came and began the work of the kingdom of God,
and we the church, the church universal,
have to continue that work, and advance it,
but Christ will return to complete it.
That work is: spreading the good news of God’s mercy and God’s justice across the world, telling it in words that make sense to all peoples who have not heard it, and building up the Kingdom of God so that it is real and strong. Our work is not just to protect what we have; we are working for a much bigger future goal, and sometimes it takes a divine wake-up call to get us looking farther than our own walls.
It is easy for me to look beyond these walls because I have had to move around so often. I have been in so many different congregations in my life, and trying to stay connected to them – this is both a blessing and a burden. It is particularly a burden right now because I have to move next week, and I don’t want to go! I have loved this time and this work. I love you all so much and you have meant so much to me as you taught me and worked with me for this past year. I will never forget Lostine and my time here with you.
But it is a blessing at the same time, because it helps me to look at the big picture, and I want to invite you to look at that that too. For some of you this is really the only congregation you have ever been a part of. But we the church are part of a much bigger story. The people of God in all times and places are working toward a great future day when the Kingdom of God is AS real on earth as it is in heaven. As I take my exams in seminary, and as you gather on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings to study, we are all working for greater understanding of God’s word. As I pray in some other congregation, and you here, we are all trying to open ourselves to God’s work within each one of us. As I take care of orphans in Uganda, and as you feed the hungry of Wallowa county, we are all expressing God’s love in tangible form, and making the Kingdom of God known.
This is my consolation and what gives me hope: that we are all working for a greater future, we have a goal, and that we are together in that, no matter our physical location. I encourage you to hold fast to that, and to pray for the world. As I often lead in my prayers, we start – family, closest, congregation, county, state, nation, world, church universal, the will of God.
Keep opening your minds to see the big picture with me. And trust that we are all part of the same work in Jesus Christ. Amen.