Brandon and Emily hosted our young adult seedling small group at their house this past week and as we read scripture, prayed, and talked, one of the leader’s guide questions inspired Brandon to tell us a story about how he had been on his way home from work one night in the past week.
He had stopped someplace for supper and sat at the bar. He ordered a drink and something to eat and found himself sitting next to a guy who was also there for supper. As they sat and ate, God was present, as he always is, and he came up in conversation.
The man sitting next to Brandon made it clear that he was no friend of God. He sounded hostile to those who would call themselves Christians, and conjectured that the biggest problem our country is facing is that we need freedom from religion. Again, and again he said, we need “freedom from religion.” Brandon listened, tried to understand, and shared his perspective about God’s graciousness, but at the end of the meal Brandon left fairly certain that he had not changed this guy’s mind.
We are looking for Jesus and waiting for him to return, trusting the promise that he is coming to bring renewal, redemption, and healing to us and to the whole world – to those of us who gather on a cold and misty Sunday morning to praise him and to those who sit with a chip on their shoulder at the bar.
Like an unexpected knock or ringing of the doorbell, Jesus will come, and open the door so that we see the guest on our doorstep — we will see our Lord face to face, and the whole world will see him. He will appear to all flesh, to all creation, and to the whole world. And Jesus encourage us to be ready for that day, to hope in that day above every other hope in our life, to yearn for that day.
With his own passion and cross just ahead of him, he describes the Day of his reappearing with apocalyptic, end-of-the-world language:
“There will be indications in the sun and moon and the stars, and even on the earth there will be distress and anguish among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and from terror of what is coming into the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the cloud with power and great glory.”
But you can almost imagine Jesus finishing these words and then twirling around on his barstool and looking you dead in the eye when he says, “But, now when YOU see these things begin to take place, you stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption and release are drawing near.”
Because there is a distinction between how the world will receive this promised Day to come, and how we are to receive this same Day. The world may find itself in anguish and despair, but we are encouraged to stand, and to straighten ourselves up with confidence, because the Lord promises that whatever this Day may be like or look like, it is for our good.
We can trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
One of my best friends in high school and college was Brent Wilson. In high school, Brent drove a Bronco II, had great taste in music, was really smart, and always super interesting to talk to. Back then, we had a lot of mutual friends with whom we hung out, but a lot of times the two of us would get into adventures on our own.
One night really late, we were out and Brent said he had to go by his Dad’s office for some reason. Brent’s Dad was a dentist and so we drove to the office park where his Dad’s practice was located. Everything was really dark, and we parked, and Brent had a key, and we went into the office and turned on the lights.
Brent went into the office area, and while he was doing whatever he was doing, getting some piece of paper or a making copy as I remember, I poked my nose into the rooms where the business really happened. I eased back into the kooshie dentist chairs, looked at the white, futuristic looking robotic dental arms, the large hanging lights, and the little sinks where you’re instructed to spit.
“Hey Brent, does your Dad clean your teeth?” I just though of it in the moment.
“Yeah,” He called.
I had never really thought about it, but it turned out that Brent never really made an appointment to see the dentist like the rest of us. He would just be there with his Dad sometime and hop in the chair for a quick check-up, plaque removal, and deep clean. No big deal.
Now, our children, who three and four, are scared silly to go to the dentist like a lot of kids. The dentist we go to gives out stickers at the end of a good visit, hoping that if there are tears and yelling, (which who am I kidding, there always are) — at least everything ENDS on a good note.
Many adults, if not outright scared of a trip to the dentist, are at least apprehensive about the prospect.
The difference between my good friend Brent and all of us who are scared of the dentist is the kind of relationship we have with the dentist.
Because I get uneasy when my appointment for a teeth-cleaning pops up on the calendar, but candidly, I don’t even recall my dentist’s name. I see him twice a year, after all.
But Brent rides in the car and shares holidays with his dentist. They watch Carolina basketball together, talk on the phone, and eat meals together. They love one another. Because their relationship is so close every day, Brent is not scared of the day when he sees his dentist face to face.
One day, the whole world will be brought to its consummation and stand before God our Maker. The difference in how we will receive that Day, and the difference in how we can live our life in the meantime, has to do with the relationship we have NOW with the God we will see on that Day face to face.
And God comes to us now in his word, in bread and wine, in water, in community, so that we can trust he is real, so that we can learn to see that he is also with us when we ride in car, celebrate holidays, talk on the phone, eat our meals, when we remember his kindness and when we have a chip on our shoulder, when we’re able to articulate his goodness and when we fail miserably.
In all these things Christ is present to assure us that there is no need to faint with fear in the face of the worst the world can offer; war and violence in the news, hunger or addiction, feelings of hopelessness or chronic illness; brokenness in our homes, in our hearts, or in our lives, because God has initiated a relationship with us in Jesus, so that the God who already knows US intimately has also made HIMSELF known in the birth and life, teaching and healing, and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
He has come to us, sent by God our Father, who made us in love, who delights to watch us grow, who wants the very best for us, who cares for our health, who is there to welcome us home, and who also wants to give us freedom from fear.
Yes, we are sad about all the ways this world is broken and in need of care, but Jesus says “do not be afraid.”
Heaven and earth will pass away, but our Living Lord’s words will not pass away:
He says to us with love, “This is my Body and Blood, given for you, do this for the remembrance of me.”
He says from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
He says to us after his resurrection, “You are my witnesses.”
These are words that will not pass away.
With these words in our hearts, we are on our guard so that we are not weighed down, drunk with the worries of this life.
We are not afraid.
The consensus in our small group at Brandon and Emily’s house was that we know what the guy with the chip on his shoulder at the bar feels like sometimes. We also would sometimes like to choose freedom from the constraints of following Jesus.
We would rather not live under his demands to forgive those we don’t want to forgive, to listen to those who bore us or infuriate us, to give of our money and time and selves without reserve to a world in need – but to imagine that this kind of life would be more-free is a trap.
In following Jesus and his way of life we receive true freedom – freedom from fear, as he teaches us to trust him with this day and all the days to come.
The. Very. Last. Parable. Jesus tells, as the cross looms on the horizon is this: look at the fig tree and all the trees, as soon as they sprout leaves you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
Jesus invites us into life, budding, growing…
…like a seedling group working out its call to discipleship,
…like a congregation gathering gifts for members of the larger community to make the celebration of Christ’s birth brighter, …like children and adults bringing cans of food for the food pantry,
…like women and men taking time to listen to those who feel estranged from God, trying to understand, sharing the perspective of God’s graciousness, and trusting God’s promise to increase our love for one another and for all.
On the great Day to come, and on this day, the Lord who gives us life makes us to stand up, raise our heads, and trust soon and very soon, we will see him face to face.
Thanks be to God!
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Luke 21:25-36]