Upside Down Advent: How not to get ready
Free Community Church
27 November 2022
For the sermon series leading up to Christmas, we will consider how not to Christmas – how not to get ready, how not to repent, how not to be great, and how not to save the world.
This season is known as Advent, which means arrival. We typically associate Advent with the first coming of Jesus – a baby in a manger, angels, wise men, shepherds, and so on.
But Advent is also a time when we consider another coming of Christ, often referred to as the Second Coming, and that is the central topic of our Scripture text today.
Let us pray:
O God, open our hearts and minds
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that as the Scriptures are read
and your Word is proclaimed,
we may hear what you are saying to us today. Amen.
Listen to the Word of God from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 24, verses 36 to 44:
However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.
When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day.
In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat.
People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.
Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left.
Two women will be grinding flour at the mill; one will be taken, the other left.
So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming.
Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into.
You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.
The Word of the Lord.
The mood of the passage is telling the reader to be ready, to be watchful, because Jesus might return any day.
These verses have often been used to scare people into believing in God. It appears to be describing the end times, when Jesus returns to judge the world. It has been called the “rapture”, during which some or all God’s people will be taken away.
Those left behind would go through a period known as the “great tribulation” – a time of great hardship, including disasters, famine, war, pain, and persecution.
But this kind of teaching not only gives people a wrong image of God, but also fills believers with a sense of dread. We become anxiously vigilant, worried about our salvation and those of others. We are afraid of being left behind, or leaving behind loved ones who have not accepted Jesus as their Savior.
This is the kind of getting ready that is exhausting. It is waiting with fear and anxiety. So, if this is not the way to get ready, then is there another kind of getting ready?
Biblical prophecies usually have two dimensions – they not only describe what’s to come, but also what was happening at the time.
The image is a reconstructed model of what the second temple could have looked like during Jesus’ time.
Matthew was likely writing during 80 AD, about 10 years after the devastation inflicted by the Roman-Jewish war that led to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple.
This photo shows what remains of the wall today. The photos were taken at our church trip to Israel in 2018.
It remains a somber place for Jews who mourn the destruction of the Temple, which was never rebuilt.
Matthew recalled the prophecies about the Son of Man to the fragile Christian community who emerged from the cataclysmic war.
How does one live after what seemed like the end of the world?
Perhaps the message for us is similar. Unexpected tragedies can happen at any moment.
In the middle of enjoying our lives, a flood could come and disrupt what we take for granted, our normalcy. We could experience unemployment, sickness, accident, etcetera;
the life of a loved one or an important relationship could be taken away or severed;
we might experience physical or emotional harm or violation, a loss of safety. Or something precious might be stolen from us, or lost, or destroyed.
These are not signs of judgment but part of the human condition.
Christmas at age 16 felt like my end of the world. After years of being the responsible and studious kid and a leader in the church youth group, my health collapsed and I felt burnt out.
My parents left me alone and didn’t seem to care. I withdrew from everyone and stopped doing schoolwork. I failed a subject and did not graduate with my cohort. I couldn’t imagine a future.
What has felt like the end of the world for you?
[unexpected, caught you by surprise, 3 kind (loss of normalcy, loss of relationship, loss of safety)]
Just as tragedies often show up unexpectedly, so Jesus also shows up unexpectedly in them.
At Jesus’ first coming, he defied people’s expectations of who the Messiah was and what he came to do. People thought that he came to lead a violent revolt; instead he modeled peaceful protest and gave his life for his people.
Likewise, Jesus may come when we least expect him to, and do something surprising and amazing.
During the summer after that difficult school year, I attended a youth retreat where we could sign up for counselling sessions with the pastor. During the session, I cried while he sat with me.
At the end, he asked if I wanted a hug. Sometime into the embrace, I realized that he wasn’t going to let go until I was ready. That’s how Jesus unexpectedly showed up for me that day, reminding me that he will always hold on to me as long as I need it.
This doesn’t mean that you should go around hugging people unless you have their trust and consent.
Perhaps there isn’t one big second coming, but many small second coming(s).
After the great flood described in Genesis, God placed a rainbow in the sky to signify God’s promise to never destroy the world again.
Jesus can come to you like a rainbow after the flood, giving signs that only you would understand of his never ending commitment.
Jesus assured his disciples that after he leaves them, he would send the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, Jesus reminds you that in the absence of that special relationship, he will send his Holy Spirit to comfort and guide you.
Jesus calls himself the gate who keeps out the thief so that his sheep could sleep in peace. The bad memories will fade with time.
We can look forward to the coming(s) of Jesus, not with anxious dread, but with openness to be delightfully surprised, like a child opening a present on christmas.
How has Jesus “come” to you unexpectedly?
[person, event, place, oppt for you to reflect and give praise to God publicly, how have you experienced signs of promise, presence, protection]
God doesn’t engineer tragedies, but God can use them to shake us out of our comfort zones.
Floods cleanses us of frivolous distractions, death sobers us to consider what matters, and we are robbed of the false gods we rely on instead of God.
This Christmas, Jesus is robbing you, but he is replacing what he has stolen with something better.
Being robbed of my mental and physical health revealed how much I based my self-worth on my accomplishments and success at school and in church. I was no longer able to project a facade of self-sufficient competence.
Neither God nor I were at fault for the suffering. It was the consequence of never learning how to name feelings and believing that one should never show weakness.
I thought that it was enough to keep things between God and me. But eventually I realized that I couldn’t pray myself into wellness. As I sought out help from professionals and peers, I realized that those were God’s means of healing too.
God replaced my false god of self-reliance with the humility to accept help from others.
How has God used your tragedies and disappointments to free you of false securities?
[cleanse, sober, robbed; gain clarity; new insights; learn about self]
To summarize, the passage shows us three kinds of events that can feel like the end of the world. They disrupt our sense of normalcy, they sever relationships, and they threaten our safety.
However, Jesus can unexpectedly appear and remind us of his promise, presence, and protection.
Finally, God can use these tribulations to clarify what is important.
As we gain more security in God’s love, we can wholeheartedly love God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Here are four suggestions for practicing love this holiday season:
Before you attend the office party, pray that God will direct you to someone who needs to have a conversation beyond small talk.
As you wrap a present, pray a blessing for the recipient.
Instead of buying new stuff, do a group re-gift exchange. I’ve fine-tuned a gift swap game over the years that optimizes happiness. I am happy to share the instructions.
Join us at next week’s After Church Event to thoughtfully write Christmas cards, instead of dashing off a generic greeting.
The Christmas season can be stressful with expectations and pressure to be cheerful. It’s OK to take care of yourself by keeping functions simple or turning down invitations.
Also, if you are in a place of sadness or loss, don’t pretend to be happy. Keep watch for Jesus to come to you where you are, as you are.
What is one way you can do Christmas differently this year?
[how can you show God’s love in a tangible way? say no to? say yes to? start new tradition? how might Jesus want to use you to show up for someone?]
There is an end of the world coming for each of us, individually.
As a rock climber, one of the scariest things is doing a lead fall because it can be quite a big drop before the rope catches the last placed protection.
Sometimes I wonder if death is the ultimate letting go and trusting the ultimate belayer.
Whether the end comes for you tomorrow or in 40 years, know that Jesus is holding the other end of the rope.
The message of Christmas from today’s scripture passage is this: we can be ready for anything, because Jesus is Immanuel, which means God with us.
As you think about the end of the world that you fear, that you dread, that causes you anxiety, remind yourself of this truth I can be ready for anything, because Jesus is Immanuel. I can be ready for anything, because Jesus is with me.
I’d like to play the song Immanuel, written and sung by Michael Card.
A couple notes about the song we’re about to hear:
1) the lyrics are based on scripture passages written in a patriarchal culture, so God is referred to as “he”,
(2) the line “if God is w/ us, who can stand against us” should not be interpreted as a militant us vs. them.
The phrase is taken from Romans 8, which accompanies the promise that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow — not even the power of hell can separate us from God’s love.
No power in the sky or in the earth below—indeed nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord”
[invite the visual presenter to play the song]
[step away from pulpit]
Play video (4 min): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9L3ZOBQB-Oo
[step up to pulpit]
Pray with me.
Come Lord Jesus, we are alert and eager for your many second coming(s) in our lives and in our world. Rob us of our false sense of security so that you can give us freedom to love wholeheartedly. Remind us that nothing, not even death, can separate us from your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen