I have been reading Scripture for 57 years, beginning at my Godfather’s knees, and the differences between the way God has spoken to me through His Word year by year, decade by decade are astonishing. For years when I heard the Gospel that is at the heart of this morning’s readings it was the warning of global, indeed, cosmic destruction that caught my attention, so much so that it was sometimes hard to hear the Word of salvation. But now, emerging into the twilight of my years, I hear something quite different, a word not only of redemption and hope, but of a courage that has its source and its strength in the Almighty.
The Almighty thunders, “Straighten up, raise up your heads,” to fragile, mortal creatures who see the signs of the End of Days all around them. Not only will the earth shake and the waves of the seas roar over their banks, but even heaven will heave and the suns and moons will lose their courses. Yet, still, in the midst of all that is new and terrifying and unwelcome, the Lord God says to His people, “straighten up,” and “raise up your heads.”
Have courage, He says to us, do not wail at the destruction you see about you and hide under your beds or in your basements. “Straighten up,” and “raise your heads,” for it is your rescue that is at hand, for your sins imperil you far more than any natural or even cosmic disaster. As frightening as is any natural disaster, including natural disaster on the scale described in our Scripture texts, such events can kill only our bodies, not our spirits, which remains safe in God’s care. But our sins, those imperil not only our bodies but our spirits, and will, without the mercy of Christ, end in our total destruction.
Luke’s rendition of the coming End of Days is much like that of the Gospel of Mark, which we heard the past two weeks. But while Luke’s description of the last days is every bit as descriptive as that of the writer of the Gospel of Mark, his focus on the human response to Christ’s return is more explicit. This is true throughout Luke’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel drives us to respond positively to Jesus’ preaching and His claim to be the Messiah, but is less interested in what happens once we are past the point of conversion. Mark’s motto is, “Behold the Son of God and believe, now!” The evangelist, Luke, on the other hand, is very much interested in what we do with our newfound belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and His kingship. Luke accepts without reservation that conversion of heart, mind, and spirit to the belief that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Lord is the Gospel’s intent. But he also sees the need to “convert” our words and deeds as well. Belief is to be enacted; to show itself in what we do as well as what we say on a Sunday morning in Church. Practice what you preach has been our focus over the 25 weeks of Pentecost. The evangelist Luke would be in full agreement that our beliefs should lead our actions, especially those actions which have an impact on the people around us.
Luke describes the response of people at the End of Days as fainting with fear and filled with foreboding for what the future holds. But the signs that induce this overwhelming fear and anxiety are not indicators of doom like some weather report on a monster hurricane. Instead, they are more like texts or emails letting us know a beloved family member or friend is well on his way and we will see him soon. Unless your beloved nephew is a recently released serial killer, fear is not the intended response of the message. Rather, the intention is that we should remember to do all we need to do to welcome our visitor into our lives: make sure the guest room is clean, the bed turned down, a warm drink is ready for a cold traveler, and the porch light had been left on.
Jesus, on His return, is unlikely to require one of our spare bedrooms. The King of Kings will have no need to lay His precious head on one of Grandmother’s remaining embroidered pillowcases. What Jesus is telling us is to have the faith to live courageously and boldly, certain in the saving power of Jesus Christ. We do not need to cower, hiding under physical or psychological barriers, fearful for our lives. There is no doubt that the world can be a frightening place. And Scripture tells us that those moments before the redemption of the world will shake us all. But these are timely warnings, meant to encourage us to live our faith instead of lock it in a spiritual trunk and dump it in the attic, there to lie unopened.
We observe Advent that we might focus in a timely way ourselves on those warnings. Advent, then, is not some strange but pretty prelude to the real event, Christmas, or simply a means by which we keep the children from continually spinning like tops around classrooms and homes from the day after Thanksgiving to the 25th of December. Advent shakes us in the here and now so that even adult disciples of Jesus Christ may be jolted out of their absorption by the minutia of the celebration of Christmas, the gift lists, the cards, the wrapping, the menu for the vigil of Christmas and the day itself, the trips to the homes of various relatives for yet another cookie and glass of eggnog or cider. All these things are wonderful, but if we are not careful they become the whole event, and it’s like faith is relegated to that old trunk in the attic. Advent begins the Christmas cycle with the biblical texts that promise the return of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, made man by the power of the Holy Spirit and the willing obedience of Mary, crucified, risen from the dead, and ascended to the Father to remind us that Christmas is no mere secular to do, but is instead the time at which we bow the knee to our returning King and Savior.
We make that bow even though we have, as God’s people, been waiting for His return for what seems a very long time to us. We think 2000 plus years is nothing to sneeze at, but for God Himself that time is nothing. Literally nothing, for what is time to God, Who is its author but Who is not, Himself, constrained by it. But those two millennia seem like a long time to us, who as a people have struggled for generations to stay centered on the long faithfulness of God and the fulfillment of His promise that Christ will, indeed, return to judge us and the world and to redeem it from sin and death.
But we do, indeed, live in the end times, and if we cannot say how long that period between the ascension of Jesus Christ and His return will be, we can be certain that the period of waiting will come to an end. Like a child who sees only a handful worth’s of days left on her Advent calendar, the days passed in waiting remind us that the waiting will not last forever. That being God’s own truth, we may depend on it, and then the only question is how do we live as we wait for the End of Days?
Let’s begin with a sense of urgency. Because the End of Days has not yet come does not mean it will not come, and maybe tomorrow, or next week, or this time next year. We don’t know, so rather than live like there is no End of Days let us live as if it will come during our lifetimes. Which means what for us? That what we do with our lives and our God-given talents and treasures matters so much to God that He will examine us for evidence of fault. God’s judgment is real, and we will be judged, and we will not like what we see. We slide right past the Day of Judgment because we don’t want to contemplate our own sin and error. But, hey, we are sinners, and the likelihood is that even what we see as our strengths will be judged as weakness. So we should live knowing that God will judge us. Every day, as we walk through our lives, let us think not only of what we want and the means by which we obtain it, but also of what God wants from us. Let God’s will, then, temper our every word and every act.
But if God’s judgment is real so is His grace. Jesus reminds us that we do not need to cower in fear before God, for He is steadfastly faithful and full of compassion. We can stand straight not only in the face of the world’s dangers but also of the Lord’s judgment. So, be bold in faith. Preach the Gospel. Make the Gospel the reason for your life. And prepare yourself to meet God face-to-face. Amen.