Sunday, November 27, 2016

How to get ready for Jesus' Advent

Matthew 24:36-44
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word advent, you’ll recall, means arrival or the coming of a notable person. In Advent, we wait for the coming of Christmas, of course. More importantly, we await the day when the crucified and risen Jesus, the One Whose birth we celebrate just four weeks from today, will return to this world.

Every Sunday, you and I talk about Jesus’ return as we confess our faith through the words of the Apostles’ Creed. “He will come again to judge the living and the dead,” we say. But in the rush of everyday life, we often seem to lose touch with the fact that Jesus, Who has made good on every single promise He’s ever made, will return.

When Jesus does return, the judgment will happen. Those who have trusted in Christ, surrendering their lives and their wills in the everyday places of life, will live with God for eternity.

Those who have not trusted in Christ--who have trusted in themselves, their wits, their money, their families, a false religion, whatever--will be separated from God and from life for eternity.

Jesus says, referring to Himself: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” [John 3:18]

It’s to keep the certain promise of His return--and the need to remain constantly focused on following Him--in the forefront of our minds that Jesus speaks the words that make up today’s Gospel lesson. Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 24:36-44.

Verse 36: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

This may be hard for us to imagine! The main characteristic of any human being is the desire to be in control, what the book of Genesis calls our desire to “be like God.” Yet, here’s Jesus, God in the flesh, saying that even He doesn’t know the day or hour of His return to this world. He’s leaving things totally to the will of the Father, just as He did when He went to the garden of Gethsemane and prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” [Matthew 26:39]

Anyone who claims to know when Jesus will return is placing themselves above Jesus. Speculation about when Jesus will return is nothing other than a human attempt to take control of what rightly belongs in the hands of God.

Go back to the lesson, starting at verse 37, please. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming [or the advent] of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken [to be judged] and the other left [to live]. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken [to be judged] and the other left [to live].”

Jesus asks us here to remember what things were like back in the days before Noah’s flood. There were two ways to look at those days.

Genesis 6:11-13 tells us how the world looked from God’s perspective: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.’”

From God’s point of view, the people of the world were corrupted by sin and violent in all of their dealings. Evil was so bad that God decided to send the flood and destroy every human being who didn’t worship him.

But, Jesus says, in the days and years leading up to the flood, all but eight members of the human race looked at things in a different light. They went about their business without a thought to the corruption, injustice, megalomania, and violence that characterized them and their culture.

Pre-flood humanity never knew what hit them or why when the waters rose. The flood came, Jesus says, and took them away.

Don’t, Jesus is telling us, get used to doing things the world’s way because, ultimately, every human being must answer to God.

(Notice too, that it's those who are taken away by the flood who go away to be eternal punishment. It's the ones left behind who remain with God, in sync with God, following God, faithful to God, remaining under His reign. According to Jesus, the last thing any believer would want is to "be raptured." We want, instead, to remain with the God we meet in Christ!)

Let's be honest: The world today is just as corrupt, violent, and selfish as it was in the days before the flood.
It turns out that pre-flood humanity has nothing on us in the sin department.

The world today hurtles along with its own agenda, indifferent to others’ suffering, six-billion people baying, “What’s in it for me?”

If the Father were to tell the Son that right now was the moment for Him to return, it’s hard to imagine a more apt time than this one!

Go back to our lesson, please. Verse 42: [Jesus continues] “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

We had our house broken into once. It took us by surprise because, as I’ve told some people before, the thieves didn’t send us a text to say, “We’re breaking into your house next week.” It’s crazy, but I remember thinking, “If I’d only known when they were coming, I would have stuck around the house and they couldn’t have stolen anything.” But the time to get ready for a thief is before the thief arrives, not after. Just so, Jesus doesn’t tell us when He’s coming back, just that He is and that we need to be ready for it.

And exactly why doesn’t Jesus tell us the time of His arrival? That way we could keep on sinning and doing whatever we want and then, just before He comes back or just before we die (assuming He’ll tell us that date too), we could repent.

People who think that way--and many people do think that way--are under the delusion that salvation is a deal we make with God by saying the right words or doing the right things.

Or they think that they'll know the exact moment at which they'll need to be ready, as though God is going to inform them of when Christ is returning or when we're going to die.

But we can’t negotiate with God. We can’t placate Gods with religious acts. And we can't anticipate the moment when the omnipotent Creator and King of the universe is going to draw the curtain on this old creation and usher in the new one with the return of Jesus.

This very day, God demands that we either adhere to His commandments perfectly, which we cannot do, or that we repent and surrender our whole selves to Jesus Christ, Who has obeyed God’s Law perfectly, then taken the punishment we deserve for us.

Then, we’re to live each day in submission to Christ Who brings God’s forgiveness and life to those who turn, each day, to Him.

It’s people daily submitting to Christ who are ready not only for Christ’s return, but also for whatever life may hit them with at any given moment.

No matter what our age or education or wisdom or income level, we cannot know the day or hour at which either our own lives or the life of this world will come to an end. We are NOT in control! I’ll never forget getting the telephone call telling me that the seventeen year old son of friends had died. Moments before his death, he’d been a vibrant young man. A short while later, he ran a stop sign, a car T-boned his, and he died.

A few days ago, I received a text from our daughter asking me to pray for a good friend of her husband. The friend's father had died suddenly unexpectedly of a heart attack the night before.

Events like these aren't recorded in the plans included in our day planners.

Life on this fallen planet is fragile.

But Jesus has died and risen so that death in this world need not be the ends of our lives.

In John 11:25-26, Jesus, the Savior Who could not be kept from living even by death, promises: ““I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die…”

This is a promise not just that Christ-followers will live with God beyond death. It’s also a promise that God will fill us with life, a life of love and direction, hope and peace, even in the midst of the chaos, pain, grief, and uncertainty of this life.

Advent is the season of waiting for our King to come back. But we don’t wait passively.

We await Christ with faith that He’s in control even when our world is unraveling.

And from the certainty of faith, we watch for ways we can love God and love neighbor, fight for justice, feed the hungry, care for the impoverished, make disciples, take care of our families, love our friends, seek reconciliation with those we have hurt.

We don’t do any of this to earn God’s attention or affection. God already thinks about you all the time. (Think of that: God keeps you in mind as an individual, just as He keeps all the individuals who have lived, are living, or ever will live on this planet!) And God already loves you infinitely. I agree with Max Lucado when he says that every time He thinks of you, He smiles. He loves you. He wants you to be with Him for all eternity. His gracious offer of love, forgiveness, and life is standing and guaranteed by the shed blood of Jesus.

The question is whether you and I will receive Him as He comes to us through Christ or not. Will we be waiting to welcome Jesus when He returns?

We await Jesus with active, trusting faith and we watch that sin gains no foothold in our lives for one simple reason: Because we know that God has already saved us through our faith in Christ...because we’re thankful for what God has already done us through the cross and empty tomb of Jesus...because we know God loves us!

And when the sins of the world, the devil, and our sinful selves seem to rob us of our life and zeal for love, we can remember words like those found in Isaiah 40:31: “...those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Jesus is coming back! We don’t know when, but when He does, may He find us ready, our lives focused on Him and on our neighbor, brimming over with gratitude for grace, filled with faith, and powered by the Holy Spirit to live the lives of love and purpose for which we were made.

That’s how to be ready for Jesus’ advent!

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was prepared for sharing during worship with the people and friends of Living Water earlier today.]

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