Today begins the liturgical season of Advent which, for Christians, is a time of waiting – we wait and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our world. We look back and celebrate Jesus’ coming as a little baby, but we also look forward and prepare ourselves for his glorious return when all of creation will be restored to its original state of wholeness and righteousness. This morning is the first of a 6-part sermon series called “Hope Is On the Way,” during which we will consider how the past and future colliding in the present gives us hope for today. Psalm 33:20 is our theme Scripture: “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.”
Scripture Reading: Matthew 24:36-44
Some of you might have seen the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps this past summer when they put on their show for the public. When I was in high school, I spent three summers marching with a Class A drum corps out of Ypsilanti. I played snare drum. In my third year, our drum instructor was a bully. He was an amazing player, and could play circles around anyone. But he wasn’t a particularly good teacher. He had one instructional method that never made sense to me. If someone messed up, he would stop and ask them if they knew what their mistake was. If they answered yes, then he would often respond, “Well, then why did you do it?” As though they would have known ahead of time that they were going to make that particular mistake!
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it before, but a huge part of our human experience is living in expectation while not being quite sure what to expect. As a musician, I may expect that in an upcoming performance I’ll play a particularly difficult passage of music correctly. But I also know that that during my practice sessions, I got through it mistake-free only part of time. Maybe it’s such that the closer I got to the performance, the more often I played it error-free, but there are still times I mess up in practice. Given all that, statistically speaking, it’s likely I’ll play it correctly during the performance, but I also know there’s the possibility I won’t. So, I live in expectation while not being quite sure what to expect.
Consider the couple who’s been together for a year or two. By this point in their relationship, they’ve experienced a lot of life together. They’ve see how the other handles stress. They know the other’s work habits. They’ve seen how they interact with their family and friends. At some point, they’ll probably ask themselves, “Is this someone I could marry?” If they both say it is, then they get married.
What might they expect of their marriage from that day forward? Based on their experiences of each other over the previous year or two, they probably go into that marriage expecting it to work. It’s worked up to that point in time, and there’s no reason to believe it shouldn’t continue to work. They anticipate staying married “’till death us do part.” At the same time, they also know that in the years to come, unforeseen challenges will come their way. They’ll be forced into situations that they never experienced before, and there’s no knowing ahead of time the affect that will have on the marriage. And so they live into their marriage expecting it to last forever while not being quite sure exactly what to expect.
This is also the true when it comes to having children. We watch others raise their kids, and then draw certain conclusions about what it’ll be like and the kinds of parenting issues we might face. But the truth is, while some of our expectations may be realized, when it comes to raising our own children, there will be things we’ll have to deal with that we never expected. So, we live in expectation while not being quite sure what to expect.
This is a reality of living in this world.
The problem is that this always leaves us feeling a little off-balance. Most of us prefer to know exactly what to expect; we like to know what’s coming around the corner. And when the unexpected comes along, we’re thrown. We say, “I didn’t see that coming!” It’s the call in the middle of the night with bad news. It’s the traffic jam on the highway caused by a bad accident, results in a missed flight. It’s the tree that crashing through your roof during a wind storm. Or the doctor informing you that you’re carrying triplets. Or your spouse coming home and informing you they’ve been let go. Or the stock market crash that wipes out most of your 401K one year before you’re supposed to retire. If there’s one thing we should come to expect in this life, it’s the unexpected!
We live in expectations while not really knowing what to expect!
These four weeks leading up to Christmas Day comprise the liturgical season of Advent. It’s during Advent that Christians do two things which are somewhat in tension with each other. We look back and remember the known, and we look forward in expectation of the unknown. What I want you to remember is that it’s looking back at the knows that gives us a sense of hope for the unknown that lies ahead.
Looking back, we recall things the prophets of old said, things which were a kind of prediction of their future. They themselves looked forward in expectation of the unknown. They foretold the coming of Messiah, the one who would save God’s people. When and how it would happen was unknowable. But today, knowing when and how it happened, we look back and recall their words, and we do so as a way of building up our own faith. We look back and remind ourselves that everything God said through those prophets eventually came to pass. It keeps before us the truth that God is faithful to his word.
Looking back during Advent, we recall the early days of Joseph and Mary’s engagement, when they had to break the news to their families that she was pregnant out of wedlock, not knowing how they’d react. We recall Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant with her son, John – who later became knowns as John the Baptizer – and how John leaped inside his mother’s womb when the two women greeting one another.
We recall how Mary and Joseph were forced to make the long trek to Bethlehem in her final weeks of pregnancy, not knowing what to expect along their journey. How, upon their arrival, they discovered the only available lodging was the innkeeper’s stinky and dirty barn.
We recall the angel’s announcing Jesus’ birth to some unsuspecting shepherds in the middle of the night, and how they hustled into town to check it out – not quite knowing what to expect.
We look back and remember all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, everything that happened just as the prophets said it would happen. And so our faith is strengthened as we’re reminded that God is faithful to his word.
All that’s gone before us is known. We remember it and celebrate it. His birth changed the world. The God through whom all creation came into being entered into the fray of our world as a human being.
But there’s another aspect of Advent that’s just as important as looking back at Jesus’ birth. And that’s looking forward to his return to earth. The birth narrative we know. It’s already taken place and was recorded for posterity’s sake. On the other hand, almost everything about his return is unknown to us, other than the fact that it will happen…because Jesus told us about it, and we know that God is faithful to his word.
The entire 24th chapter of Matthew is dedicated to the return of Jesus. He describes these “last days” as a time of great suffering. Starting in v. 29 (just prior to where this morning’s reading picks up), Jesus says, “Now immediately after the suffering of that time the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then the sign of the Human One will appear in the sky. At that time all the tribes of the earth will be full of sadness, and they will see the Human One coming in the heavenly clouds with power and great splendor” (vv. 29-30).
They will see the Human One coming on the clouds with power and great splendor. The term, ‘Human One,’ is a modern rendering of the older term, ‘Son of Man.’ The personal title ‘Son of Man’ is peppered throughout the Old Testament books of Psalms, Ezekiel, and Daniel. But it’s particular to Daniel chapter 7, where the prophet Daniel is revealing his vision of the end of days.
The term ‘son of man’ refers to two things at the same time. First, it signifies a human being; literally a son of a man. But the context of Daniel 7, it takes on a Messianic nature.
Jesus claims the title for himself as his way of telling us that he himself is the one about whom Daniel was speaking. It’s not quite as eloquent, but ‘Human One’ is intended to convey the idea that the Messiah is a human being. And that’s what we believe about Jesus; he was both divine and human.
Going back to the story, what did Jesus say the people would see at the close of the days of suffering? “They will see the Human One coming on the clouds with power and great splendor.”
He’s talking about his return.
Today’s reading picks up in the middle of this revelation of future events. Jesus says,
“Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. . . . Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know” (v. 36, 42-44).
Here’s what we know about this world-changing event: We know that Jesus will someday return. He won’t come back as a baby again; not as a human being to deal with sin. He’s already done that. When he returns, Scripture tells us that it’ll be in such a way that the entire world will know it’s happening, all at the same time. He’ll return as the King of kings and Lord of lords, and all of creation will be redeemed and made whole once again. We know that it will happen, but that’s all we know. We can expect his return, but we really have no idea what to expect what it actually happens.
Except for this: for Christians, it won’t be a frightful event. In fact, think about the thing that makes you the most joyful and happy in life and multiply that by 10 million – that’s what it’ll be like for followers of Jesus. To call it a glorious day would be the greatest understatement of all time.
Friends, hope is on the way. It was on the way when the prophets spoke of Messiah’s coming into this world – and it came. Jesus IS our hope. And knowing that his return will usher in the Kingdom of Heaven in its very fullest, most complete state, gives us hope as well. We not only believe, but we know, by faith, that the days of this broken and sin-sick world are numbered. God the Father knows that number. And when that number reaches 0, Christ will come in the clouds with power and great splendor, and we will be reunited with our resurrected spiritual bodies and live eternally in the presence and love of God Almighty.
This is the good news.