Sunday, November 28, 2004

How to Wait (First Sunday in Advent)

Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
[This message was shared this morning with the people of Friendship Church. The three major lessons extracted from the Romans passage which I talk about here are taken from a message written by Pastor Billy Compton and appearing in the Abingdon Preacher's Annual 2004. They distill the passage well.]

Years ago---long before most of the members of Friendship were born---the late Peggy Lee wrote and recorded a song called, Is That All There Is? The words are so depressing, you'd swear it was a country song. It was really sort of a proto-rap tune because the verses were spoken, the chorus and bridge were sung.

The first verse begins with the song's narrator describing a fire that destroys her childhood home. After the flames have died down, her father asks, “Is that all there is?”

In the second verse, she goes to a circus and watches the spectacle, but still feels that something is missing. “Is that all there is?” she asks.

Next, she turns to a love that didn’t stand the test of time and is led to ask, “Is that all there is to love?”

Lee’s chorus, drenched in the heartsick worldliness and sensual cynicism that were her trademarks, says, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing; Let’s break out the booze and have a ball; If that’s all there is.”

As much as you and I would rightly call Peggy Lee’s song a real downer, I suspect that it speaks for more of the human race--even the Christian parts of the human race--than we might want to admit.

So many of the things we invest our hope in---from romantic love to the dream job, from the nice house in the nice neighborhood to the perfect holiday seasons--prove either elusive or flat-out disappointing. As wonderful as any of these things can be, none are capable of delivering the happiness, peace, or sense of fulfillment we often demand of them.

One California pastor has recently put me onto a book about contemporary America, written by journalist Craig Easterbrook called, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. It seems that in this era of immediate gratification, millions are still asking, “Is that all there is?”

Baptist pastor Billy Compton tells about a phone call he received from his college student-son at one in the morning. He’d just experienced a “defining moment” in his life and was anxious to share it with his dad. His son then began to describe how, after arriving on campus, he began indulging in all the activities he simply presumed were normal for college students. He explained that he’d been under the wrong impression that “everybody” did these things for four years, graduated, and then settled down, grew up, and did the normal things “like getting a job, marrying” and so on.

But now, Compton says, his son told him: “He had not planned on God intervening in his plan for a ‘normal’ life. When he would go to bed at night...he remembered verses of ‘Amazing Grace’ he had learned growing up in church. The song caused him to think of his life’s condition.”

He realized that this life style wouldn’t be so easy to discard if he held onto it for four years. He remembered people he’d known who themselves had graduated and really hadn’t moved on. They were still mired in constant partying and immaturity. Compton writes, “My son felt God speaking to him, seeking him out to end his lifestyle, and make his life count as a Christian.”

Both of our Bible lessons for today talk about waiting. That’s really what this Advent season that we begin today is about. Not only is it a four-Sunday period during which we await Christmas. It's also about the time when, at the end of our days on earth, all with faith in Christ will meet Him in eternity. And it’s also a time when we’re reminded that we await the return of Jesus at the end of time. When Jesus comes back to the earth, He will set everything right and He will kick off the final fulfillment of His never-ending kingdom.

Meanwhile, you and I are called upon to adopt a lifestyle composed of three elements. Paul talks about them in his words to us from Romans today. They’re the very elements present in that college student’s “defining moment.”

First, we need to wake up and see the true condition of our lives. In his story, The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis writes about two children from our world sent into the alternative universe of Narnia. There, they’re joined by an amphibias-like creature named Puddleglum and are charged with the task of liberating a prince imprisoned in the depths of the earth by the spell of an evil witch. The children and Puddleglum break the prince’s spell. But as they prepare to make their escape, the witch arrives. Like the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve, she uses subtlety to try to convince the prince and them that the artificial world she has created and over which she presides is the real one, not the places where they once lived and ran and thrived. It wasn’t until they “woke up” from the sleepy state her spell had induced that they saw things as they really are.

The reason for so much of the disappointment and cynicism people feel is that they’ve put their ultimate hope in the dying stuff of this world. Instead of putting their hope in the endless riches of God’s love, they live their lives for the riches of money. Instead of placing their hope in the love of Christ that liberates us to become our best selves, they expect spouses, children, and friends--like well-trained pets--to love them and make them happy.

Whether we’ve never surrendered to Jesus Christ or we’ve been walking with Him our whole lives, we will need to spend our lives, in the words of an old hymn, shaking off “dull sloth,” trashing the sleepy inertia that comes from being lured by sin and the values of this world. We’re in constant need of letting God wake us and shake us to the new life that can be ours as we surrender yet another part of our lives to Christ.

So, we need to wake up and see the true conditions of our lives.

We also need to assess our lifestyles. Do they conform to God’s will for our lives? The happiness experienced by those who live without God in their lives is shallow and short-lived. (Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. I have tried many times, even in my years as a Christian, to try to live my way rather than God's. God's way is better!) Those who strive each day to follow God have a happiness that does not end, even when life gets hard.

Take a seemingly insignificant example. A man I know recently told me that increasingly lately, he’d found himself falling into the pattern of taking God’s Name in vain. He wasn’t cussing anybody out, really. He was just using God’s Name as an apostrophe or a space-filler in his sentences. He didn’t even notice at first.

A fellow Christian and a good friend saw this and finally told him, “You know, Ted, I’ve noticed that you’ve been doing this a lot lately. I’m not God. But I wonder what this new habit might be doing to your relationship with God and how others see your faith.”

To his credit, Ted, took his friend’s words to heart. He remembered Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of the Second Commandment: “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain” and realized that God gave us the privilege of using His Name only for “prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.”

Ted had been using God’s Name for purposes other than those for which God had given it in the first place; in other words, he’d used God’s Name in vain. He also realized that over the months that this habit had taken hold of him, there had been a slow erosion of his respect for God. He felt sure too, that his unchurched friends had heard him and thought less of him and of the God he claimed to follow.

Ted’s assessment of this one element of his lifestyle led him to repent for his sin and to ask for God’s help in treating His Name with greater respect.

We need to see the true conditions of our lives and we need to assess our lifestyles.

We also need to change our wardrobe. I’m not talking about changing our clothes. Paul says that we need to put off the works of darkness---that means life without God---and instead, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s all very fine for us to know our faults and want to turn from them. But until we cover ourselves with the forgiveness and power of Jesus Christ, we will be incapable of living the lives that both God and we expect of us.

The writer of our Bible lesson, Paul, wrestled with this himself. In another part of Romans he writes: “I can will what is right [in other words, I can make all sorts of resolutions], but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do.”

Have you ever felt that way? I sure have and often do. Several shelves of my books at home contain programs of self-improvement. But the fact is that until I let Jesus Christ take control of me---all its nooks, crannies, relationships, and habits---I am incapable of doing little more than tweaking around the edges of my life. Jesus Christ can change us from the inside out, if we will only let Him. But it's a process, one with which God is willing to be patient and with which He asks us to be equally patient.

Today, we’re waiting for Christmas, we're waiting for the moment when we see Jesus face to face, and we’re awaiting the return for our Savior Jesus at the end of the world.

All of these events will prove disappointing, the latter eternally disappointing, unless we learn how to wait.

Christmas morning will arrive, the ends of our lives will come, and the world will end and we’ll ask, “Is that all there is?”... unless we can make the three elements of holy waiting that Paul talks about in our lesson today become integral to our lifestyles.
  • We need to wake up and see the true conditions of our lives.
  • We need to assess our lifestyles.
  • We need to cover ourselves with the love, grace, and power of Christ.
If we open our hearts and wills to Jesus this morning, our question will change. We’ll no longer ask, "Is that all there is?"

Instead, we'll ask God, “Is there no end to the goodness You bring to me, Lord?”

And God will say, “No, My Child, the good stuff will be yours forever and ever.” Amen!

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