By Pastor Cherie Johnson
Happy New Year! And God bless us, every one! You may have heard that joke before. It is the beginning of the New Year in the Christian Church, as we begin with the first week of Advent.
Advent is the time of preparation. The word itself comes from a Latin word meaning “coming”, and it refers to the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, but it also refers to the return of Christ. That is where we focus today.
As we start this period of waiting that leads to Christmas, we recognize the length of time that the Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah, a Savior. Christmas is when we recognize that this Savior was born, and whether that date was December 25th is not really important. It is when we recognize that God began to fulfill this promise, but it is not complete yet. We are living in this in between time, while we are waiting for the coming, the return of Christ.
We start today with the promise of a Messiah, a Savior, a true king, a great king, in the book of Jeremiah. With Luke’s passage later, we get a picture, a taste of what it will be like when God fulfills the rest of the promise.
We start in Jeremiah. Today I will be reading out of The Message Bible translation….
Jeremiah 33: 14-16 (The Message)
14 “‘Watch for this: The time is coming’ – God’s Decree – ‘when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. 15 When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. 16 That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, “God Has Set Things Right for Us.”
With the beginning of the new Christian year, we begin a new cycle featuring the Gospel of Luke for a good portion of the next 12 months. Since we’ll be spending a fair amount of time with it, we will take a few moments to look at the very beginning to see what its purpose is, to help us understand It better.
The Gospel of Luke at its most basic level is an ancient document that got into the New Testament. The traditional understanding is that the book was written by Luke, a man who wasn’t Jewish. He may have been a doctor. He wasn’t looking for a messiah, but Luke embraced the teachings of Jesus. He had a friend named Theophilus, who was also a Christian, and he was the kind of Christian who believed in general, but he wasn’t so sure about the specifics. He lived in the time of the first century. He lived during the time that the people who knew Jesus were still around, the eye witnesses of the crucifixion and resurrection.
Theophilus had questions. “I heard this story about Jesus. Did that really happen? I heard that story about Jesus. Did it really happen? Luke, I’m so confused. I can’t fit it all together.”
So Luke, sets out to write an orderly account of Jesus. It doesn’t read like a myth or a “once upon a time” type story.
To prepare us for our next 12 months, I will read these first verses to you from Luke 1:1-4. They may be the most important of the New Testament you ever hear if you ever had a question about some of the things that you have read and heard in the Bible, especially as it applies to the birth of Jesus.
Luke 1:1-2 (NIV)
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
Luke talked to witnesses. He knew Peter. He spent time traveling with Paul. He knew James, the brother of Jesus, and chances are that if she was still alive, Luke probably met Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Luke 1:3-4 (NIV)
3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
The account Luke gives is something he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” It was also that Theophilus could know “the certainty of the things [he has] been taught.”
Christianity is not based on faith in faith, but on something that happened in history. As we begin the Christian New Year at the beginning of Luke, we now jump toward the end of Luke at 21: 25 – 36, to the very end when Jesus is talking about his return.
So as we begin Advent, and the journey to the birth of the Christ Child, we begin with the end in mind, the very end when all of God’s promises will finally be fulfilled.
Just before this passage, the disciples ask Jesus about how they will recognize the end of the age. Actually Jesus is very vague in Luke. He says that many people will claim that the time is near. Don’t believe them. In Matthew 24: 36, Jesus says, “No one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the father.”
In Luke, he goes on to explain how they can recognize the time. Again, I will be reading this from The Message translation. Jesus says…
Luke 21:25-36 (The Message)
25 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose – sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, 26 in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.
27 “And then – then! – they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style – a glorious welcome! 28 When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
29 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. 30 When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. 31 The same here – when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. 32 Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too – these things will happen.33 Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.
34 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, 35 for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. 36 So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”
Now that we in the United States have passed Thanksgiving and are in Advent, we are waiting. If I asked each of us as adults, we probably have very different experiences of Christmas, but they might be quite similar as children.
As a child, the waiting felt impossibly long, as we eagerly anticipated Christmas Day. It could be excruciating, but then as adults you hear that Christmas is three weeks away, and there couldn’t possibly be enough time. However, for all of us, there is the promise of the certainty that Christmas will come whether the waiting feels long or short.
Ok, it’s confession time, and it won’t leave the room. As a child, how many of you searched the house for your gifts? How many found them? How many got out and played with them? How many broke something? How do you finesse that?
My confession is that I did look for my presents. What was torture was when they were under the tree, but I couldn’t look at them. I will admit that I ever so carefully figured out how to unseal them without being detected. I didn’t do anything with them. I would just look, then I carefully resealed them. This was probably when I was around seven or eight years old. I asked my mother if she could tell, and she was shocked to find out. She had no idea.
I was just as bad when I wanted to give gifts. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to see what the reaction would be right away. I wanted to experience their joy.
The dynamic of waiting is what was in place for the very first Christmas. The Jeremiah passage was written before the Babylonian exile. He was warning that something terrible was happening, but in the future David’s kingdom would be restored. This is about 600 BC.
The Jewish people hadn’t heard a peep from God since about 430 BC, but the bigger promise, the promise made to Abraham that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed, back in Genesis, had been made thousands of years before.
We have a certainty about the coming of Christmas. They had no certainty. Many thought it was a fairy tale or a myth, but a remnant remain faithful, and hopeful. A tension that the Jewish people lived in waiting for that first Christmas is not unlike the tension we live in as we wait for Christ’s return. The people Luke were writing to directly had expected Jesus to return immediately, but they continued to wait, as we continue to wait.
And, that’s why it’s such a good place for us to start. During Advent, we are waiting for the birth of the Christ Child. In the coming weeks we will visit the people who were waiting for the first Christmas the way kids wait for Christmas morning today, feeling like it will take forever, like we wait for Christ’s return.
On the one hand, with all of the time that has passed, we may be wondering if it is all true, but we also have the certainty that it will come. Knowing that God keeps his promises, and just as he did with the first Christmas, so it will be when Christ returns in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet, like we say when we have communion or the Lord’s Supper.
But what is it really saying? What does it all mean?
One of the reasons that I read a scripture passage from The Message translation is that the language in most other Bible translations like the NIV, the New International Version, sounds fantastic, and by that I mean that it sounds like a fantasy or a science fiction movie. But, this isn’t a story from a “galaxy far far away.” As we talked about earlier, this is Luke’s orderly account not a fantastical story.
Other translations refer to signs we will see in the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars. At that time, they thought that things happening on earth were reflected in the sky. The familiar powers are in disarray. They are losing their power. They are letting people down. The word translated as “world” is not the more commonly used kosmos, meaning the whole universe, but oikoumene, which means the more specific political and economic realm, therefore referring to earthly powers.
Does anybody remember the Saturday morning educational program for kids, Schoolhouse Rock? It was a great program that taught about math, science, grammar, history. It had catchy songs and interesting visuals. There was one that featured the start of the American Revolution, and the “shot heard round the world,” referring to the first battle at Lexington and Concord.
I remember hearing that term for the first time as a child, and wondering how it was possible, scientifically. I didn’t understand that it was a figure of speech meaning that the ramifications of the shots fired at Lexington and Concord would eventually affect people all over the world, to this very day.
“Earth shattering” is another one of those phrases. I remember that phrase being used with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The earth didn’t physically shatter, but the world was instantly changed, just as it was instantly changed after 9/11.
In the same way, this scripture passage is saying that the powers that be, political, economic, will be shaken to the core to the point where it will be frightening for everyone in the world. But, we need not be afraid. When everyone is looking down and hiding, we should be standing up and holding our heads high because Jesus is coming; the kingdom is near. And he, will bring release from oppression. The text says “Son of Man,” which is a name that Jesus uses in Luke to refer to himself. It comes from Daniel chapter 10, referring to the one with God who will be king.
Again, these other versions, translations, say that Jesus will appear coming out of the clouds. Maybe it will happen that way, but most importantly, we will recognize Jesus, and he will be with us. We will know that we can be confident and joyful. We can look up and know, and hold our heads high.
Yet, with all of these disturbing things happening around us today, it doesn’t make much sense. It looks like bad news, but Jesus is saying that it is good news.
This news is supposed to give us courage and confidence as David Lose puts it where, “we live and work, love and struggle between two gray poles of God’s intervention in the world. The coming of Christ in the flesh in order to triumph over death through his crucifixion and resurrection… And the coming of Christ and glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven.”
This and give us great hope because despite the turmoil that we feel now with what is going on in the world today, we know the end of the story. It has already been written.
When we are afraid of terrorists, we can raise our heads for our redemption has drawn near in Jesus. When we are afraid because we hear of violence in nearby cities, we can hold our heads high and know that help is on the way in Jesus. When we fear for our financial future with the erratic movement of the stock market, whether we have money there or not, we can raise our heads and remind each other that our redemption is drawing near in Jesus.
While we wait, we can wait in hope. We can be a source of encouraging light and hope for each other and welcome all who are struggling in the community with fear and darkness. In the meantime, we can move forward in the season of Advent. We remember and wait for the birth of the Christ Child when the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
Next week, we will move deeper into the story as we hear “the voice crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!”