Advent is a time for expectation and anticipation. Most sermons preached on the first Sunday of Advent are based on passages from the Old Testament prophets– passages in which the prophets look to the future for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and to the whole world. In their poetry, the prophets look toward the day of universal peace and shared justice–the day when even wolves and lambs, lions and calves shall dwell together in harmony–the day when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God just as the waters fill the seas and oceans–the day when the world’s entire population shall truly be God’s people–the day when a special one sent from the heart of God shall bind together all the promises of God and all the yearnings of humanity and all the love and devotion of heaven and earth into a bundle of abundant and joyful life. The prophets with these hopes and expectations shaped the faith of Israel. And as Christians blessed with hindsight, we believe they provided the context for the coming of Jesus.
But we must be honest. Jesus’ coming frankly does not fulfill the hopes of Israel and all the promises of God. Apparently, Israel expected a Messiah to come and set the world right–Presto! Pow! Abracadabra! Immediate transformation! And yet if Jesus is the Messiah–the hope of Israel and the heart of God made flesh, he does not by his coming bring universal peace and justice, universal devotion and compassion, or universal life and joy. He has made a profound difference to some, but is there anyone who can say today that a single nation, much less the whole world, reflects the fulfillment of God’s promises in such an absolute way as expected by the prophets?
There is evidence in the New Testament that this lack of universal fulfillment bothered the early church. The church was disturbed by the fact that in spite of the coming of God’s Anointed, much of the world went on as usual. In the palaces of Rome, in the streets of Jerusalem, in the academies in Athens, in the fields, mines, stores, and homes of multitudes, the coming of Jesus had meant nothing –in fact, most people were not even aware this event had occurred. The early church struggled with this lack of fulfillment and with the problem of a Messiah whose coming had not measured up to the expectations of their faith. The church still struggles with this, even in our day. For 2000 years the church has lived in a world where the Messiah has already come and still there is war and hunger, poverty and oppression, suffering and injustice, greed and prejudice, unrighteousness and immorality – and to make matters worse, the church itself has not been innocent of complicity in these plagues of humanity. The coming of the Messiah was to stop all this and usher in God’s Kingdom of love, life, and light. How do we deal with this lack of fulfillment?
Some in the church deal with the problem by saying “the Second Coming” will very soon fulfill all these expectations. Let’s just wait for that blessed event when Christ will come on his white stallion and with a mighty sword put everything right. Such a solution, however, does not solve the problem. For one thing, a king on a horse slaughtering people left and right and forcing peace, justice, love, and compassion on the world is a far cry from the picture of Jesus we see in the Gospels. With the ideas many people have about the Second Coming, it’s as though Jesus has undergone a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation. I firmly believe that whatever we may think about a future coming of Jesus, it must be in harmony with what we see in Jesus as his first coming. The Jesus at the end of time must be the same Jesus we meet in the Gospels, or all that we find there is of questionable meaning and passing authority. And besides, if God plans to force the divine will upon us with an iron hand, surely God would have done so the first time around without waiting 2000 years or more finally to get it right.
Others in the church deal with the problem by abandoning the expectation of the prophets and the promises of God. They believe that in the hereafter and in the sweet realm of heaven, there will be peace and justice and love and compassion and joy and abundant life. But that is not what the prophets expected or what God promised. The biblical faith expects this to be the experience of all of the nations of the world in time and on earth. But many have given up on that ever happening. In its place we have settled for a little private peace and love in our hearts and for a blessed assurance after death. With such an understanding we may no longer feel the tension of unfulfilled expectations and promises experienced by the early church and thus have abandoned the biblical faith of God’s commitment to this world and this time.
So, what do we do? I believe we can find some unexpected help from the Book of Revelation (which for the most part has been a misunderstood book usually left to the lunatic fringe of the church to interpret.) Frankly, Revelation was not written to predict the future and the end of the world. It was written to help the church live in the meantime. It was written to help the church remain faithful to God’s promises in an unfaithful world. And it was written to keep the church in the world without becoming of the world. Revelation is acutely aware of the unfulfilled expectations and promises experienced by the church and the world. It knows of wars and famines and poverty and disease and injustice and oppression and greed and immorality and idolatrous nationalism. It is aware of the strength and scope of darkness in this world, but the book will not abandon the expectations of the prophets or the promises of God.
The Book ends with the gates of heaven eternally open for the nations and kings (those who have persecuted the church and have opposed the will of God) to enter and find healing, joy and life. The Book ends with affirming God’s promises and faith’s expectations for the redemption of this world. And the Book ends with a double invitation.
It says, “Come–all who are thirsty for God and the divine will–all who want to taste the promises of God–come and allow your life, which is a part of this world, to become a faithful witness to the fulfillment of God’s promises and faith’s expectations.” In other words, let your life become a preview of God’s coming attraction. Bring a little of heaven to earth with your life. Bring a little of the future into the present with your faithfulness. Come and drink from the water of life–the nourishment of God’s promises and faith’s expectations made real right now. “Come!” This is the first invitation, and it is an invitation for us to allow God’s promises and faith’s expectations to become real and present in that part of the world in which we live, move, and have our being.
I think it’s important to see that the Bible ends with an invitation and not a command. Such an ending reminds us of the freedom we have and affirms how important our freedom is to God. When you think about it, love cannot exist without this freedom to choose. Peace, justice, compassion, and sharing may be longer in coming when they are connected to freedom, but when they do come, they will be real and lasting for us and the world.
So, we are invited to come to God and drink of those ancient promises and to make them real in our lives and in our world. Jesus in his first coming inaugurated the Kingdom of God which would result in the healing and redemption of the world. The final fulfillment of that Kingdom will occur when God finally becomes “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28) and when the old heaven and old earth are healed, transformed, and made whole. But in the meantime, we are called to continue Jesus’ mission as we bear witness to that Kingdom through lives of sacrificial love, deep joy, and unswerving trust.
There is a second invitation, but this invitation is from the church to Jesus: “Come, Lord Jesus.” In this ancient prayer of the church, we recognize our need of him for the promises of God and the expectations of faith to come to pass. We must choose peace, but is there any doubt today that such peace must also be a gift? It must come through us but from a source beyond us. The same is true of justice, sharing, compassion. And how much we want the promises of God and the expectations of faith to become real for our world and our lives will depend on how sincerely and deeply we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come and be the Messiah in a world which still so desperately needs what only God can bring.”
So how does the Bible end? It ends with a double invitation–an invitation to us and to the world to come to God and an invitation from the lips of the faithful, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
The Bible ends affirming the freedom we have to make significant choices for our lives and our world, and at the same time it ends with the recognition that if God is not present and active in ways far more encompassing than we presently experience or will allow, our world must continue in its pain, sin, and violence. The Bible ends on tiptoes–in expectation.
And so in this time of Advent, we can be true to the season by embracing that expectation –the expectation of what can occur when we come to God and allow God to come to us so that together in the freedom of love’s choice we create a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth for which humanity has been so eagerly waiting. Let all the faithful of God say, “Come. Lord Jesus.”
God of wonder and promise, in this holy season we thank you for the events, relationships, and opportunities which allow for your gifts to bless our lives and our world. For hope which lifts us from despair to a new plane of expectation and possibility — for peace which reconciles us to you, to others, and to ourselves and which promises wholeness to life and healing to our beautiful planet – for joy which transforms our days into sacraments of eternity as we become alive to all around us – for a love which lays the foundation for all genuine hope, all lasting peace, all authentic joy – for all these gifts reflecting your boundless compassion, we give you thanks.
Lord, when we consider these gifts and ponder our weak responses, we ask your forgiveness for when we have given in to despair and refused to let you hope through us for a better world –
when we have abandoned the ways of peace and marched arrogantly down other paths of self-interest and pride–
when we have confused transitory happiness and selfish pleasure with the enduring joy which gives life meaning and creates caring community–
when we have spurned your love as it breaks through events and people to us and when we have refused to be channels through which your healing compassion can flow to a hurting world.
In this Advent season, focus our lives and our hearts on your hope for us – your peace for all humankind– your joy which can make us truly alive– your love which alone makes the needed difference. This season may the Christ come afresh into our lives and into the world, and may we be joyful heralds of his coming through our words, our deeds, and our praise. Hear your people as we turn to you in Jesus’s name. Amen.
The apostle Paul ends his words of institution for the Lord’s Supper with this statement: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” In other words, we gather around this table not only in remembrance of Jesus but also in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises and faith’s expectations. This meal looks as much to the future when God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven as it looks to the past when God’s sacrificial love redeemed humanity. Perhaps the best way to eat this meal is not to sit at table with hands folded in contentment, but to stand on tiptoes with all the faithful people of God with one prayer on our lips and in our hearts: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”
The Bible ends with a double invitation. And all legitimate worship of God through Jesus Christ involves this double invitation. We are invited to come to God for healing and salvation. And we in turn invite God to come to us as we make room for heaven’s agenda for our world. This Advent, may both invitations receive a positive RSVP. From God’s side, we already know the answer. Jesus is God’s eternal “Yes!” to us and to all creation. May our response to God be just as faithful as we prepare our hearts, our lives, and our world for the coming of the King.
May all of the promises of God and all the expectations of faith bring comfort to your hearts, challenge to your discipleship, and inspiration for your pilgrimage as you journey in this glorious season of to meet the King. Amen.