Today marks the second Sunday of Advent. This Sunday begins week two of the Church’s new year. The next three Sundays, we’ll read passages from Scripture that are all about recalling Jesus’s first coming, his incarnation, and what this meant and means for people, so that we can prepare for his second coming. His return. His coming judgment when everyone and everything will be gathered to him.
Our Advent readings seem like they have a pretty simple and straight forward message that were summarized for us in last Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew: “Keep awake … for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” God’s coming again in judgment and mercy to reconcile us to him really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The Prophets’ words recorded in our OT books are filled with God’s own promise to come to his people, to lead them out of slavery, to rescue them and set them free to live the way he intended for them to live. And of course, we read these passages, from each of the four Gospels, each Advent.
Our reading from Isaiah today says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
And today we hear John the Baptist continue this prophetic ministry of announcing God’s coming into the world, continuing the legacy of those prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc., before him: “’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’" This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Last week Jesus spoke of God’s judgment – the Flood, and of God’s mercy – the Ark upon which a remnant were saved from that flood. And Jesus layed claim to have this very power of God’s judgment in his own coming: as the flood came in judgment and swept them all away, so when I come, will I sweep away those who are not bound to me. As the wood of the Ark raised up a whole people from the union of male and female, up above the flood waters of death, so the wood of the Cross held the Son of Man whose union with human nature raises people from the dust, from dry and desiccated bones buried in a tomb, to life now and eternally.
But let’s look a little closer at the last two weeks of readings in Advent. Just in case you thought God was a giant teddy bear, let’s be clear what Jesus has said here: pay attention, do not take grace for granted. Do not dare think that you will be able to flee from the wrath to come; that is do not think that you can somehow avoid the judgment of all of humanity. You cannot turn from it saying you do not believe. You cannot hide from it saying you didn’t see or hear about it. And my friends who think yourselves so righteous, beware that you have not deceived yourselves in thinking you are righteous when you are not. You brood of vipers, John says to the religious righteous persons of his day, who told you to flee? Turn around, turn back to God. That is, do not think yourselves to be righteous. Like everyone who stands before God, you, my friend have sinned. Take responsibility. Do not pass the buck, so to speak. Do not blame others. Instead, know that I love you and desire you and open up to me. Take a step back from your self-determined righteousness so that you can see the log in your own eye. For only in humility, will you be able to see the gap between what I desire, and what is. And when you see this, know that I will bridge that gap. To be humble is to accept what is true: that I alone can rescue you from sin. Only then, will you be able to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
So last week we heard: pay attention. In other passages, we find, ‘lift your heads.’ Why? Because we hear today, the judgment of God is coming. And that judgment – if we follow John’s words here of those who are unworthy being thrown into the fire – is actually a warning of impending death and destruction for those who are not bound to God. It’s a warning of an unnatural end: life without God, whatever that might mean, whether annihilation, or hell, or the worst of our living experiences repeated over and over without end. The Son of man will come and every tree that does not bear fruit, that is, everyone who does not seek God and turn to him, will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Take heed. This is a warning not to be ignored. Do not let yourselves fall away, Jesus says. Now this might seem a strange statement for Protestants to contemplate. We cannot save ourselves right? It is God who came in Christ to save us right? It is God in Christ alone – our God who became man for our sakes – who joins us to himself, which we mark in our baptisms and in the Eucharist, as a sign of grace working in us. And then of course there was a rather large and complex debate about justification and about human action and about whether one could lose one’s salvation. Let me tell you now that there still isn’t really a clear or coherent consensus about these matters.
I think we could debate questions about salvation and justification and whether salvation could be lost until Jesus comes and still not arrive at a consensus that would convince even a portion of Christians. Fortunately and quite mercifully, it would appear – if we read scripture – that God was quite aware of our individual and collective inability to make sense of his commandments not because they are unclear, but because we are blinded by our own ‘stuff’ our sin and because frankly, we live short, limited lives with exceptionally limited knowledge. So instead of having to resolve a complex philosophical or theological puzzle to determine who’s in and out with God, God said this: my friends, you do not know when I shall return. That’s what we heard last week. Stay ready; stay alert; don’t forget what happened to others when they didn’t stay alert and when they got distracted by their work, their daily affairs, their emotional issues, their social issues, etc.
Folks: keep your eye on the ball: ME. If you’re struggling, seek me. If you’re worried, seek me. If you’re wondering what to do, seek me. Then let go of your stuff – let go of your jealousy toward others, your anger, your self-pity, most especially your fear, your sense of worthlessness, let go of feeling jaded, stop being so narcissistically self-focused and entitled, stop bowing to the idols you create to keep you reveling in your own sin, stop engaging those things or even people after whom you lust sexually or emotionally, stop ignoring God and the challenges and difficult paths he puts before you because you prefer a kind of secular Canadian comfort. Let this stuff go when you’re seeking a better way, because that’s the only way you can hear me calling you.
To let go of what you think gives you control over life, over yourself and others …. this demands humility. And humility is the basis for honesty. Honesty is the basis for self-reflection before your creator and redeemer, God. And self-reflection in accordance with the Scriptures will bring you face-to-face with God’s demands on how you live in relationship with others, your friendships, your working relationships, your marriages, your children, and indeed even in all those ways your find yourself tempted away from God’s design. That’s what we heard last week in Romans. Not some theological trope, or some philosophical reflection, but rather the ‘how to manual for those who are willing to heed God’s warning that he’s coming’: I am coming. Do you know me? Do you know who you are before me? Do you pursue your own ways, or mine?
Whom do you follow? Follow me, Jesus says again and again. Jesus doesn’t give some complex formula, or some promise clearly developed by people who think solely with the flesh rather than the spirit. So what do we do while we’re waiting for Jesus’s return? What does it mean to be prepared? John tells us really bluntly, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Concretely, that means you need to know not your own will, but God’s – for every aspect of your life. And so really concretely, instead of going bowling, or playing cards; instead of blaming other people, or hiding behind your money and possessions and your ability to consume more and more and more, or behind your self pity and anger and inwardly or outwardly directed rage and punishment, attend to the one who is coming in judgment: God and attend to the Scriptures to find yourself this day, and every single day, in every situation you find yourself. For it is here alone that you will find where you are before God as he comes to us. If you don’t know the Scripture, learn them. For it is there alone that you will find yourself putting on, as Romans put it last week, the armor of God who will deliver you to life eternal. AMEN.