Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Starting at the Ending

Midweek Advent Worship
Our Savior’s, Moorhead
Advent 1/December 4, 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Let's start at the very beginning/
A very good place to start/
When you read you begin with ABC/
When you sing you begin with do re mi/….

Starting at the beginning sure makes sense, doesn’t it?  Most of the time we begin at the beginning.

Except that in the peculiar logic of the church--where the last is first and the first is last-- we tell time differently.  Our song, if we had one, would be: “Let’s start at the very ENDING…”

Let’s begin this new year on the church’s calendar by zooming way ahead, to the final future, the destination toward which we’re heading.

Truth be told, part of me is always a little annoyed when Advent begins, because someone decided, long ago, that we can’t just jump into Christmas, as much as we might like to…

We’re not allowed simply to get out all the warm fuzzy holiday stuff from the boxes in the crawl spaces, where we’ve squirreled it all away from last year….

Instead of jumping into the “hap, happiest time of the year”….we need to warm up to it, to place Christmas in the broadest possible context so that it will hit us with full force.

Let’s start at the very ENDING….let’s begin our waiting for the Christ Child by remembering where this is all heading, where God is moving us, toward the consummation of all that God has been, still is and will yet be doing in the remainder of our journey here on earth.

So in this first week of Advent we focus on the End of this world as we know it…because (like a fine engagement ring) only a setting that encompassing can hold the diamond of Christ’s first coming to us, in Bethlehem’s manger, with Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds all standing there slack-jawed.

Let’s start at the very Ending, a very good place to start.   Because starting at the Ending reminds us that our God finishes what he starts.

That’s what we confess, week after week, when we wrap up the second article of the Creed by saying that Jesus the Son of God will come to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus came as a Baby…Jesus keeps coming in water, Word, bread, wine and community…and Jesus will come again, one last time, because God finishes what God starts.

And even though that promise sounds a little different each time we hear it in the scriptures, it all boils down to this:   God is making all things New--so get used to the notion that the current state of affairs will not be the final state of affairs.

So for old Israel, to whom Isaiah prophesied, for old Israel which was forever being run over roughshod by neighboring, conquering nations whom God used time and again to chasten his wayward people…

For old Israel, as Isaiah pictures it, the time will come when the Temple mount in Jerusalem will be raised up as the highest of all mountains, God’s own Mt. Everest….and the nations will no longer be God’s means of chastening Israel for its failure to measure up to God’s standard of justice.

No, the nations will not always be arrayed against old Israel, but rather when Mount Zion becomes the highest of the mountains, the nations will take notice and say to themselves:   "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."

That’s one of the Bible’s images for it—one way of picturing what we know to be true:  that God is going to finish what God has started…..and that all the people who dwell on this old ball of mud will one day recycle all their weapons into gardening tools, when “Waging War 101” will no longer be part of the curriculum, when God’s encompassing peace, God’s shimmering justice will be all in all.

So as another Advent rolls around, we begin at the ending….our scripture lessons all focusing on “the Day of the Lord”…

….and with that always comes a rub.   Because if we believe Jesus will come again, one last time, we curious cats want a timetable—we hanker for the when, the where and the how of God’s final future.

In short, whenever we talk about Jesus’ final coming, we want God to dish out the details, because we forget how much the End of all things is like the Beginning of all things—an article of faith, not a piece of forensic evidence we can dissect in a laboratory.

So, we confess that God is going to wrap it all up….but then we get distracted by our own curiosity about the “mechanics” of all that…..so God has to remind us about the folly of speculation.

Martin Luther was once asked what God was doing the day before God created the world….

….to which Luther, with a wry twinkle in his eye, responded:  God was cutting hickory switches to thrash foolish persons who ask questions like that!

So right alongside all the diverse ways the Bible talks about the End of all things….in the very same verses, the Bible holds at arm’s length all our “curious cat” questions about how and when and where it will happen.

Our gospel lesson from Matthew 24 is as blunt as any of them:  “"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Amazing!  Not even the Son of God knows when he’ll return one last time to earth.

That’s God’s business.   And if any TV preacher tries to tell you otherwise I urge you to flip the channel!

It’s God’s business—to wrap it all up, to finish the job.  It’s God’s business—how and when and where that will happen.

And if all of that is God’s business, what’s left for us?  What’s our business?

Here’s where these end-of-the-world Bible texts get really interesting.  

Because just at the point where you’d think the veil might be drawn back and we’d learn a few juicy secrets about Judgment Day….these end-of-the-world passages divert us from God’s business and point our little noses back into what’s our business.

And our business, my friends, is how we will live in the mean time…in between Christ’s first coming and Christ’s final coming. 

How now shall we live?   The Bible stubbornly keeps dragging us back to that question which is really the only question that matters.

And here’s what we’re told about our business…

From Isaiah—“Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

From the Apostle Paul—“Wake from your sleep… lay aside the works of darkness…put on the armor of light”

And from our Lord Jesus himself—“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming….be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Martin Luther advised Christians to live each day as though Jesus died this morning, rose this afternoon and is returning to earth this evening.

When we put it that way, we see how in Jesus Christ every day is “charged” with the prospect of God’s promised future.  Every day spills over with the energy of God’s eternity.   Every day anticipates all that God has in store for us.

So we lean into God’s future, as if that future was already here, present, right now.

You and I are, in a sense, “from the future”—God’s final future.   We know how the story ends.   We audaciously believe that we can start living now as if God’s future had already arrived.

So if in the fullness of time oppression will be a thing of the past, we can live today daring to believe that justice will win out.

If in God’s final future war will be no more, we can live today as if peace will actually win out.

If in God’s great tomorrow there will be no more cryin’ and no more dyin’, we can live today, inhabiting life with no limits, no dead zones in our path.

If in God’s coming Kingdom there will be a place-card for everyone, we can live today as if hospitality was the kindest gift we could ever offer to others.

If in God’s New Creation the word “scarcity” will be banished from our vocabulary, we can live today as if abundance is already overflowing.

If in God’s dawning day Christ will be all and in all, we can live now as if Jesus is already in charge, exercising his strong but gentle rule over all things, starting with you and me.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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