Today we start a new year. Now before you begin to wonder whether you have just woken from a four-week coma, let me hasten to add that it is not yet 1 Jan 2019; but rather the start of a new church year. The church calendar is not based upon linear time – a straight line from the beginning to the end of time - as most people understand the progress of time; but rather is a cyclical time.
You will understand this because it is similar to the time that we observe in nature; the time that farmers and gardeners are familiar with in the seasons of the year. These seasons are repeated year after year. The year starts with Advent and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time and then back again to Advent. We might think of this as the ‘cycle of salvation’.
But we also know that each year will not necessarily be a repeat of the year before - the cycle is not a circle in which we are endlessly trapped. The cycle of salvation is also moving forward towards the culmination of God’s plan of salvation. You might liken it to bowling along a bicycle wheel, or a cane hoop such as I recall from my days at primary school – the cycle of salvation could be pictured as the hoop rolling down the road, endlessly repeating the seasons while at the same time moving towards an event when God will bring about the culmination of his plan of salvation.
God has already intervened in the cycle once in history; the event of the first Christmas when God incarnate was born into the world as the baby Jesus. This was the event when God provided, for us, the means of salvation. This coming of Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise to the ancient Israelites foretold through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’ (Jer 33:15)
In addition, God intends intervening in the cycle a second time – the event that we call the ‘second coming of Christ’, as foretold by Jesus himself in the Gospel passage for today – that time when, ‘they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.’ (Lk 21:27) This is the event that the season of Advent anticipates. Over the next four weeks we look to the coming of our festive celebration of the first coming of Jesus at Christmas; at the same time, we also anticipate the second coming of Jesus. We do not know when this will be, so we wait.
The season of Advent is then one of waiting for the coming of the Lord. On the one hand we are waiting for Christmas, and on the other (and more importantly) we are waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
But God does not intend that this waiting should be a passive waiting. It is not like sitting on the log and watching and waiting for the billy to boil. Rather it is intended to be an active waiting, because it is also a time of preparation. You are probably beginning to busily prepare to celebrate Christmas – the soaking of the fruit in brandy, the purchase of the Christmas gifts, the ordering of the ham, and so on. In addition, Advent is when we remind ourselves to be prepared as we wait for the second coming of Christ.
So, as we begin this season of preparation for the coming of the Lord we are invited by today’s lectionary passages to reflect on how we wait. There are two features of our waiting, and the first of these is …
I. We wait with perseverance
Life is not always easy. We all seem to have to go through some difficult times, even those who have Christ in their life. In fact, sometimes it can be even harder for the Christian because we have to endure the opposition of the world to our faith, and sometimes, persecution of either an overt or covert nature.
The passage from Jeremiah 33 is set in a period of history when God’s chosen people, the Israelites were having a particularly hard time brought upon themselves through their own apostasy. They were persisting in their daily disobedience to God’s holy standards – they had forgotten their identity as children of God and were following false God’s. This led to the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the captivity and suffering of the people. Things were so bad that the rumour on the streets was that God had abandoned Judah and Jerusalem.
Coming forward in time, we have the example of the church in Thessalonica, to whom the Epistle for today was written. The devotion to Jesus displayed by the Thessalonian church, and their efforts to live by gospel standards led to considerable conflict and persecution and some church members were tempted to return to their old pagan ways. And then, in the Gospel passage we have Jesus’ prophecy that as we await his second coming we will experience increasing trials in our lives.
But, as we learnt two weeks ago, there is hope to be found in the midst of trial. The Israelites in the time of Jeremiah were assured by the word of the Lord that God had not abandoned them. Jeremiah’s message to them was that God is faithful and will fulfil his promise of salvation; the righteousness of the people of God would be restored. They just needed to persevere in their faith and not allow themselves to be influenced away from obedience to God while they awaited restoration and salvation.
The Psalm set down for today, Psalm 25, encourages us to patiently wait with trust – trusting that God is merciful and that those who follow him will ultimately be vindicated in our faith and not be put to shame by those in the world who would want to bring us down because of our Christian beliefs.
As well as waiting with trust we are also encouraged to wait in truth and humility. Remember that last week we saw that truth is grounded in the being and will of the triune God and that whatever reflects God’s own being and will is truth. This truth is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the living word of God, and in the Bible, the written word of God.
But of course, to hear the truth and to accept it as truth, we must be prepared to wait in humility. Probably the greatest thing that hinders people coming to Christ in the first place, or growing in Christ as Christians, is a lack of humility, i.e. pride.
It is pride that causes people to want to run their lives themselves and to think that they can do a better job of it then Jesus Christ. It is pride that stops some Christians acknowledging that they cannot live the Christian life in their own strength. It is only as we humble ourselves and acknowledge that in ourselves we are weak, easily tempted, easily led astray, and need God’s help to live a holy life, that the barriers stopping God from working in our life are lowered and we can then receive the power of the Holy Spirit in our life.
So, as we go through the cycles of the seasons of life – the good times and the tough times, and as we await the second coming of Christ, we are encouraged to persevere, to stand fast, and not loose sight of the ultimate goal - eternal life with Jesus Christ.
It is not easy to persevere in our Christian walk when we are faced with so many temptations and the opposition of the world. God knew that this would be the case and so he has given us something to assist us as we await Christ’s coming. He has given us his Holy Spirit, and he has given us each other – the body of Christ,. This is what we affirm in the greeting of peace: ‘We are the body of Christ – His Spirit is with us’. So, the second feature of how we wait in Advent is that …
II. We wait with each other
There are two things that today’s passages encourage us to do to support each other as we await Christ’s second coming.
1. Encourage one another.
The Apostle Paul and the Thessalonian church were a mutual encouragement for each other. Paul was encouraged by the faithful perseverance of the Thessalonians. And, in his letter to the church, Paul urged them to remain strong in their faith, to uphold one another with love, and to keep the lifestyle and values that they had chosen in Christ.
We too should encourage one another to remain steadfast in our faith and our obedience to God’s word so that we may be found blameless when Jesus comes again.
We should also encourage each other to remain alert so that we will be prepared for Christ’s second coming. I do not think that he will come tomorrow – but then, I could be wrong! The Bible tells us that even though we will have no doubt about the event when he does come, we will not be able to predict when it is to occur.
More to the point, trying to predict when Christ may return, as some do, misses the point of Jesus’ message. The important thing is how we wait, how we live out our Christian faith in our daily lives, regardless of whether we think that Jesus will come in our lifetime or not. Because, if we don’t consider this then we may find ourselves sadly disappointed when the day of judgement does come.
From our Gospel passage for today we read, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
So, the passages urge us to support one another by encouraging one another. And, the second thing that today’s passages urge us to do to support each other as we await Christ’s second coming is to …
2. Pray for each other.
We should pray for each other as Paul prayed for the Thessalonians: that God, through his Holy Spirit, would increase their love for one another, and strengthen their resolve to remain holy and obedient to Christ. It is a prayer from which we can learn much:
Note that Paul first prays that God will enable him to journey to visit the Thessalonian church. Some might ask why he would need to pray about his own journey – surely, he can just get up and go as he wishes. The lesson in this is in Paul’s acknowledgement that in God we live, and move, and have our being; that we depend upon him in all things, including the continuance of life, and that God’s Providence orders all of our affairs.
Those who have truly acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord will, as Paul clearly did, live by Proverbs 3:6 that says, ‘in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.’
Paul then prays that these Christians might ‘increase and abound in love’ (v.12); in love to one another and in love to all people. As Christians, each one of us is commanded by Jesus and exhorted by the Apostles, no less than a dozen times, to extend mutual love to one another. If love for one another is lacking in a church or individual Christian, then that church or individual is not in obedience to God and is not respecting the Gospel.
Paul also prays that their hearts might be ‘strengthened in holiness’ so that they may be found to be ‘blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus’ (v.13). The indication here is that the more we increase and abound in love, and grace for one another, the more God will establish and confirm holiness in our hearts.
In the New Testament ‘holiness’ has the sense of ethical purity or freedom from sin. So, Paul is indicating here that, as we increase in our love of one another and our obedience to Jesus’ commands, we will be strengthened in our hearts to be less and less influenced by the world and by the old sinful nature; and consequently, each day we will become more like Christ, and people will sense the Holy Spirit within us.
Paul’s conclusion in verse 13 of his prayer for the Thessalonians is a neat way of summing up what Advent is all about. Advent is about waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – particularly his second coming when he will come in all his glory with all his saints (v.13); and as we wait we are called to persevere, and to encourage and pray for one another, that we might be found to be blameless when we finally stand before God and account for our life.
So, on this first day of the new church year, let me conclude by praying the prayer for you that Paul prayed for the Thessalonians:
I pray that each one of us will acknowledge you Lord in all things, and that you will make our paths straight. And I pray that you, through your Holy Spirit, will increase our love for one another, and strengthen the resolve of each one of us to remain holy and obedient to Christ. Amen.