SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2011, THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

The first Sunday of Advent always arrives with a flurry of activity in our parish.  We begin the church year, gather in the pledges for our stewardship campaign, celebrate our Feast of Title -- our 167th this year.  But notice it doesn’t bring Christmas carols and creches.  Not yet.  My Facebook friends are already posting pictures of their newly decorated Christmas trees, people were running out to shop at midnight the day after Thanksgiving, the ubiquitous commercials have started running on television, but here we keep Advent -- or try to, anyway.  We begin today to prepare for something that’s coming.  If there’s a theme to our gospel reading today it’s that we are to watch, to be vigilant, to pay attention.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus says “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.”  We are like servants left in charge of our master’s house while he’s away on a journey, unsure at what moment he might ride back in and perhaps find us sleeping.  “Keep awake!,” Jesus says.  “Watch!” 

What is Jesus talking about?  Back up just a few verses in Mark 13 and you read this:  In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  (Mark 13.24-27)  That’s not about the first advent, it’s about the second one.  Advent has a dual character.  It’s much more than just a countdown to Christmas.  This season of preparation is about the coming of the Christ child, to be sure, but it’s also about getting ready for the second coming of Christ.  This little button hangs on the bulletin board in my office.  If you have really good eyes, you might be able to see that it reads:  “Jesus is coming -- Look busy.”  That’s kind of what we do with the second coming of Jesus, really.  We’re not sure what to make of it, so when we talk about it it’s usually jokingly, and we very seldom consider it seriously.  That’s what I want to do today.  I want to look at the doctrine of the second coming, ask what it is, and then ask what difference it makes in our lives if we believe it. 

First, what is it?  In trying to define the doctrine, there are two extremes I want to avoid -- first, the “end-times speculation” (Wright) rampant in some evangelical churches like the ones I grew up in.  This sort of “Left Behind Eschatology” centers on an event called the “rapture” when Jesus returns part-way to earth to catch up his faithful followers, then after a time of godlessness and tribulation, he finally comes to reign with his followers forever.  This school of thought tends to fantasize about the second coming and talks of little else.  It scours the newspapers and cable TV for signs that the end is at hand, constantly on the lookout for signs and predictors.  On the other extreme is a post-Enlightenment rationalism that dismisses the idea of a literal second coming entirely.  People don’t just fly in out of the sky like that, so the second coming must be a metaphor.  It must really be something like a revival of Jesus’ ethics in the world, some sort of general world renewal through tolerance and philanthropy and application of science and technology to world problems like hunger and disease.  One extreme centralizes the second coming; the other marginalizes it to where it’s not really believed at all.  But when you look at everything the bible has to say about the second coming, both extremes are clearly wrong.  The only things we know for sure from the bible are that the second coming is definitely going to happen (so post-Enlightenment rationalism is wrong), and that it’s absolutely impossible to predict when it’s going to happen (so ultra-conservative fundamentalism is wrong).  

I don’t know a better place to look for a simple statement of the doctrine than in the Nicene Creed, which we’ll all recite together in just a few minutes.  The creed states:  “We believe in Jesus Christ . . . and he will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”  What this means is that Jesus will come someday as a judge and as a king.  If we can agree on that, I want to make two quick suggestions about what it means to your life if you believe it

First, if you really believe Jesus is coming as judge, it will make a difference in your personal ethics, in how you behave in the world.  It’s pretty obvious why that’s the case, right?  If the second coming can happen at any moment, even by the time I finish speaking this sentence, then I want to pause before I act.  I want to think long and hard about doing anything that will put me under judgment.  Tim Keller, in the best sermon I’ve ever heard about the second coming, said “If you drill this [doctrine] into your heart, you’ll begin to realize you must never, ever justify bad means for some good end because how do you know the curtain won’t come down in the middle of your means?  You must never say ‘Well, nobody sees what I’m doing back here,’ because how do you know that that irresistible light won’t stream in on you at any minute?”  That phrase “irresistible light” comes from an essay by C. S. Lewis called “The World’s Last Night,” where he writes this:

Precisely because we cannot predict the moment, we must be ready at all moments.  Our Lord repeated this practical conclusion again and again; as if the promise of the Return had been made for the sake of this conclusion alone.  Watch, watch, is the burden of his advice . . . .  

But Lewis doesn’t suggest we live in constant fear of imminent judgment all the time.  With his typical practical good sense and reasonableness he says this instead:

We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world -- and yet, even now, we know just enough of it to take it into account.  Women sometimes have the problem of trying to judge by artificial light how a dress will look by daylight.  That is very like the problem of all of us: to dress our souls not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next.  The good dress is the one that will face that light.  For that light will last longer.

So if we really believe Jesus is coming as judge, it will change the way we live in the world.  And if we believe Jesus will come someday as king, I propose it should give us an inexhaustible passion for mission.  I know some Christians believe the doctrine of the second coming of Christ means we don’t have to worry much about social justice because Jesus will fix everything when he gets here.  I believe just the opposite.  The second coming means the universe has an end, a culmination, a purpose; that it's going somewhere, moving in a specific direction, namely toward the kingdom of God.  That means that history has an arc, and to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., that arc of history “bends toward justice,” it bends toward healing, it bends toward peace, toward a time when King Jesus will make everything in the world right, dry every tear, heal every disease and abolish death forever.  Do you understand the implications of that?  It means that every mission project taken up, every deed done to benefit the poor or the immigrant or the oppressed person, every cup of cold water given in the name of Jesus Christ is an act that will last forever.  In fact, those are the only things that will last forever.  They'll ring into eternity because they are commensurate with the kingdom of God. 

That’s what I want for you this Advent.  It’s what I want for my own family, what I want for us as a parish.  I want us to make room in our hearts for the coming of Jesus, not just as a child, but also as judge of the world who will set all things right, and as the king who will reign forever in peace and justice and joy.  Watch for that.  Work for it.  Long for the day that it will come.  Believe it, and watch what happens to your life.

Just watch. 

Amen.


Sources: 

For a large portion of this sermon (including the concluding exhortation), I am indebted to “Watching for the Son,” a wonderful sermon preached by Dr. Timothy Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City on 10 September 2006.  This is the single best sermon I've heard preached on the second coming.  In it, Dr. Keller has more time for exegesis and to draw out the implications of the second coming for our lives in the world.  My Advent recommendation is that you stop reading my sermon, download Dr. Keller's and listen to it start to finish!

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 120.

C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1973): 107, 113

“Where Do We Go From Here?,” an address by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on 16 August 1967.  Available online at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/ (last visited 26 November 2011).