Sunday December 1st 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 25:42
First Sunday of Advent
Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, that season of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the coming return of Jesus Christ our King.
For many of us, waiting is difficult. We’re impatient, we wish we could just get wherever we’re going right now. It’s hard for us to live in the moment, to enjoy the present. We want to arrive at our destination yesterday. We’re like little kids sitting in the back of the car, constantly asking the question, “Are we there yet?”
As a society we do not do very well at waiting. Not only can you get Next Day Shipping, but now you can even get 2-hour delivery from Amazon.com. Stores started decorating for Christmas well before Thanksgiving, and I guarantee that even before Christmas arrives they’ll start selling Valentine’s Day candy. And don’t try to buy a winter coat at the stores in the wintertime, because that’s when they’re starting to sell swimsuits and their other summer selections.
And yet we find ourselves here in Advent, in this season of waiting. Waiting not just for Christmas, but for the ultimate fulfillment of what Christmas is supposed to bring: peace, hope, joy, and love. This is what the prophets foretold would happen when the Messiah came. This is what our world is longing for, waiting for. And yet we know that Christmas will come and go, and there will probably still be violence in our city, there will probably still be wars and conflict in our world, and there will probably still be bickering and fighting in our own households.
We know that one holiday season cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But Christmas reminds us of the way the world is supposed to be, of what we have to look forward to when Christ ultimately returns to make everything right, when the whole world acknowledges Jesus to be the King. The Christmas season points forward to that day when violence is finally brought to an end, when sin and death are ultimately defeated, and when Jesus returns to judge and rule the world in righteousness, peace and love.
Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Nations
The Prophet Isaiah painted a vivid picture of this for us. According to Isaiah,
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and…all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob… (Isaiah 2:2-3a)
Can you imagine that? People of every nation and ethnicity rushing to get into God’s house. But notice here in Isaiah’s prophecy why they’re coming in droves to God’s house:
…that [God] may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples (Isaiah 2:3b-4a).
In Isaiah’s imaginative foretelling, people are streaming to the “mountain of the Lord’s house” so that they can learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths, and so that God can “arbitrate” between the nations. In this picture, God is the judge that Kings go to in order to settle their disputes. Not just individual people, but nations, governments, and rulers are pouring into God’s house to learn God’s ways so that they can walk in God’s paths.
Imagine if the leaders of every nation in the world were to acknowledge God as the true King — as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the ruler of all the earth! It would bring an end to all wars, conflict and violence in our world. In this beautiful image that Isaiah paints, Isaiah tells us that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).
Picture this scene with me. Gang members look at each other and then look down at their knives and guns and saying, “well, we don’t need these anymore!” and so they melt them down and turn them into trowels and gardening tools! Police officers are forced to find other means of employment because people aren’t committing crimes anymore! Government leaders mutually agree to get rid of weapons of mass destruction because they know that they will never be needed again, and the engineers and scientists of our world can turn their attention elsewhere because they no longer need to invent ways to help their countries defend against attacks from other countries.
Between the Now, and Not Yet
How, when, and where will this happen? As Christians, we believe we are living in the Now, and yet Not Yet. Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, has already come, and a smattering of people from every nation and people group have acknowledged Jesus as King. Many of us here this morning have asked Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. We have pledged our lives to God’s Kingdom. And so in some ways it’s already here!
And yet not everyone in the world acknowledges Jesus as King. Nations still go to war against other nations, there is still quarreling and bickering, there are still fights and disputes and violence. Many people have shut God out of their lives completely, and still others seem ambivalent or apathetic to God. Church attendance is in decline across the nation. It does not seem that people are streaming into God’s house to learn God’s ways.
And so we live in the Now, but also the Not Yet. We look to Jesus as the source and the guide for our lives, but we also look forward and long for the day when Christ will return to make everything right, when Christ will come back to rule and to reign for all eternity and when the whole world will acknowledge God as King. We long for the day when not just all of the peoples of the earth, but also all of the rulers and authorities and governments bow to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Now I know that at this point many people roll their eyes and say, “when is that ever going to happen? Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, and every generation since then thought that Jesus would return in their lifetime. How do we know that Jesus is going to come back soon?”
The truth is, we don’t know! We have no idea when Jesus will return — and don’t trust anyone who says they’ve figured out the exact date and time when Jesus will return! But, as the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Rom. 13:11b)! We may not know when Jesus will return, but we do know that Jesus’s coming is nearer to us now than ever, and the day is drawing closer
As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 24, “Keep awake….for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). It could be within our lifetime, it could be a thousand years from now. And so we live every day as if it could be our last, as if Jesus might return today. We live every day longing and hoping, and actively working to proclaim the message of the Gospel through word and deed. We acknowledge Jesus as the King of our lives, and we work to bring about Christ’s Kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love here and now.
Where Do We Go to Find Peace?
Now there’s a reason, I think, why people are not streaming into our church (or any church for that matter) asking us to teach them about God, or to teach them how to be at peace with themselves or one another. And that is that as church-going people, we’re often known more for our quarreling and contention than for anything having to do with peace.
Think of all the divisions that we see in the Church. Think of the arguments, the politics and bickering, the posturing for positions of leadership, the complaints and the gossip. (I’m not speaking about our church, of course! I’m talking about all of those other churches our there☺). A lot of people refuse to go to church because that has been their experience of church.
Ask the average person on the street where they would go if they want to find peace, and very few of them will say “church.” If they wanted to be at peace with themselves they would probably go to a therapist. If they have a conflict with their neighbor they’re more likely to go to a secular mediator than to a religious leader. And if they wanted to find peace with God they are more likely to seek out a quasi-religious guru on a far-away mountain-top retreat than to set foot into the doors of a church.
“Put On the Lord Jesus Christ”
And so Paul tells the Christians in Rome to “live honorably…not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:13). Now here at Hampden United Methodist Church, I would say I am not aware of a whole lot of reveling and drunkenness, debauchery or licentiousness going on in our midst. We do pretty well with that (as far as I know)! But we do have our quarrels and jealousies from time to time.
And so in the spirit of living in the Now but Not Yet, in the spirit of becoming people who proclaim God’s peace to the nations, I wonder what it would be like for us to follow Paul’s advice, to put aside quarreling and jealousy and to instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ? What if, instead of passing along the juiciest gossip that we hear, what if we lifted that person up in prayer instead? Rather than being easily offended, what if we assumed the best about each other’s intentions? And what if, rather than complaining and bickering, we chose to yield our personal preferences, likes and dislikes for the sake of unity within our congregation?
If we could truly become people who live at peace with one another, then perhaps people would stream into our doors, to ask us to instruct them in the way of God’s peace!
People of Peace
Now some of you might say “well it would be a lot easier to get along with everyone if they just thought/believed/acted like me!” And that is probably true. But we don’t come to church because we all have the same perspectives, preferences, likes or dislikes. We come to church because we all know that apart from Christ we are lost, that we ourselves are in need of God’s grace, and mercy, and love. We are in constant need of God’s forgiveness. That’s why we come together, that’s why we’re here.
I know that there’s no way we’re ever going to become the perfect church, this side of eternity. We’re going to mess up and slip up, we’re going to make mistakes, and we’ll need to ask for forgiveness from God and from one another. That’s why in a few minutes, before we partake in Communion, we’ll pray a prayer of confession, and we’ll offer the sign of peace and reconciliation to one another.
This morning let those words be not just something that we do and say out of habit. But let them be a genuine symbol of our love for and devotion to God and to the Body of Christ. Let us seek to be a people who pray for and practice peace — not just in far-off distant lands, but here at home. In our congregation, in our own households. If we’ve wronged let’s ask forgiveness. If someone else has wronged us, let’s extend mercy and compassion. Let’s keep a short record of accounts. Let’s assume the best of one another. And let’s let God’s grace flow freely among us.
Perhaps then the world will believe us when we say that we know the Prince of Peace! Perhaps then the world will take us seriously when we invite them here to find peace with God. Perhaps then we can become people who teach the nations how to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Perhaps then the world will acknowledge Jesus as King.