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The Sign of Things to Come

Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of HolmeswoodBaptistChurch in Kansas City, Mo., on November 29, 2009.

Luke 21:25-36

           The feeling of expectation can be a powerful thing. No doubt the feeling of expectation can be an incredibly powerful force in our lives. Expectation can force new directions or create new habits. It can keep us steady when everything else is flying off into different orbits. Or, it can take the form of the expectation of relief or the hope of healing. Expectation can force us to consider a new path as in the expectation of an answer to some vexing problem we’ve been facing. Perhaps it’s simply the expectation that God will intervene in your life, making a way that did not exist because of your own efforts.

 

            There are two Scriptures for us to hear from this morning and so it’s likely there are two faces of expectation, each scripture providing a different view of the expectation that God will do something in the world. Today, the season of Advent has two faces, two orientations.

 

            First it has a look to the past, a way of seeing backward in time to that time in the revelation of God when a savior was hoped for. It is an orientation to the past in the sense that it is a recapitulation of the longing of a long ago time when women and men of faith anticipated the coming of God’s Messiah. The Hebrew prophets had a strong sense of the coming of God to save God’s people. In the midst of strong oppression and suffering, there was the anticipation that God would most surely enter into human history and actively work for the freedom of Israel.

 

            But Advent also looks to the future in an attitude of expectancy over what God has yet to do in history. Consequently, we have a Sunday in the season of Advent dedicated to thinking in future tense about the coming of Christ in judgment and power and glory. In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, we have the strident message of the second coming of Christ to the world. It is an apocalyptic message of harsh and harrowing words warning all of us:  “Be on guard …”

 

            It’s Advent’s face toward the past we usually seek. We have four Sundays set aside for the building of expectation of Christ’s birth. We have a wonderful Christmas Eve service that helps us center our thoughts on what the wonder of that night might have been like. We have the beautiful songbook of hymns and Christmas songs that celebrate Christ’s birth. The expectation of Christ’s birth is full of sweetness and grace. Even the most hardened unbeliever can feel the pulse of the season and celebrate that magical night.

 

            But Advent’s face to the future is one that also deserves our attention. The coming of the babe to Bethlehem, for all its miraculous grace, is but a hint and a suggestion of the second Advent when this same Jesus, now risen Lord and Savior, will return to claim a world that is his.

 

            Abraham Heschel claimed a prophet was someone who knew what time it is. Six centuries apart, both Jeremiah and Jesus stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed to those who heard them that the city would be destroyed. The message was so disturbing both of them shed tears over their own words.

 

            When Jesus put on the mantle of prophecy, he turned to Jeremiah for inspiration and drew upon Jeremiah’s prophetic imagery in his words. These two passages, separated by centuries of time and circumstance, both walking hand-in-hand seeing beyond the particulars of this world, both sensing God was at work birthing something extraordinary beyond the present moment. Jeremiah’s message, however, was spoken under the shadow of oppression and it’s a word we have to hear as though we’re dispossessed slaves living under the control of others who control every aspect of our lives.

 

We are people of control and advantage and cannot hear this message as those of the seventh century before Christ. In fact, those who share in the power systems of the world should hear these words and tremble. People who run banks, people who work in city governments, people who have profited from the status quo, should twitch nervously whenever apocalyptic language is used because it means a change is coming which will likely reverse the conditions for those who are oppressed by their oppressors.

 

            How about this example from history? Columbia, South Carolina, Mary Chestnut’s diary of March, 1865:  “Sherman marched off in solid column, leaving not so much as a blade of grass behind. A howling wilderness, land laid waste, dust and ashes.” Her comments record the devastation to the Old South whose glory was built upon the old plantation system where slaves from Africa tended massive acres of economically viable crops that created wealth for the slaveholders. It was no small matter, then, that Mrs. Chestnut failed to mention in her tale of devastation and woe that the slaves were dancing in the streets. Hearing apocalyptic news is more about one’s position in the world and how the reversal that’s coming will affect their place in the old systems.

 

            It’s the passage from Luke’s gospel that gives us the forward sense of judgment and expectation. There’s a fierce gleam in Jesus’ eye as he says these words. Most of us have had experiences with churches that had the message of judgment down pat. We know what it means for the judgment of God to be preached. Maybe that’s why you came to Holmeswood. You’ve been abused and you want to find a place that knows something of the grace of God as well as the judgment of God. But like everything in life, we need balance … a little of this and a little of that. God’s grace and God’s judgment are both forms of faith we should hold in tension ever so carefully.

 

            Will Willimon told of when he pastored a large church in the South and the church focused its pastoral attention on the family that lived next door to the church. The yard of that home was always a mess and the children were poorly cared for. Rumors in the neighborhood were that the husband was drunk on most weekends, abused his wife and cursed his children. The church decided to help him so Willimon visited the family next door. The youth group invited the kids to go with them on their retreat to the mountains. The women’s group asked the mother to join them at their annual Day of Prayer. The man and his family came for a few Sundays, and then quit coming altogether. That was the last anyone heard of them until nearly a year later when the pastor met the man on the street. At first he didn’t recognize him because he looked different. “Joe, is that you?” the pastor asked him. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said with a big grin. “At least it’s mostly me. I’ve changed.” His change was obvious because his whole appearance had changed – he looked great! Come to think of it, his yard looked better than anyone recalled it ever looking. What had happened, the pastor wondered?

 

            The man told Willimon how a few months ago, a group had come by to prayer with him after they heard he had been on a drinking binge. They were a church group, but not from Willimon’s nice, middle-class Methodist church. They were from a fundamentalist church, the one across town, the one in the pre-fab metal building … the premillenial, fire-baptized, Bible believing, washed in the blood Baptist church. They told him if he didn’t stop drinking and beating his wife he was going to die and burn forever in Hell. They told him God was going to get him and that God was mad.

 

That got his attention … got him to church where they prayed for him by name when he showed up in worship and asked God to let him live just a little longer ‘till they could get him saved. He got saved, turned inside out, upside down, … redeemed.

 

            Willimon said something about how he was sorry his church had been unable to meet the needs of his family, but he was glad their church had. “Preacher,” the man said, “Don’t feel bad. Your church gave me aspirin and I needed massive chemotherapy.

 

            Maybe today’s Advent texts are words we can read and hear after all. We need to hear the sweet gentle message of the coming of a savior into the world. But we also need to hear the message to live expectantly as if Christ’s coming means something right here and now where we live faithfully on his behalf. David Buttrick tells the story of the poor black woman deep in the bayous of Louisiana who had raised over a dozen children over the years – most of them adopted and foster children. When a newspaper reporter asked her why she had done this considering her own meager resources, she replied, “I saw a new world coming …”I

 

            So the schoolteacher says to her class, “Now class, I am going down the hall to the principle’s office for a few minutes. I certainly hope I can trust you to act like responsible fifth graders. But just in case, I’m leaving the door open. I’ve asked the teacher across the hall to listen for trouble. I hope you will show me how responsible you are. I’m leaving now. I had better not hear a word out of you. You have work to do while I’m gone …” And with that she softly leaves the room. The anticipation of her return lingers in the quiet classroom. In our hearts, we long for Jesus’ presence, for we are at our best when the Master is with us. Build within our hearts, O God, a sense of holy expectation for Christ’s return while we stay busy quietly doing the work of God in our time.