Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Lights: Victories

Preached December 5, Second Sunday in Advent

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-28

I am the oldest child in my family so, when I learned to read, one of the things I started to do, as the oldest, was to read to the others; first to Kathy who was already on the scene, and then to Nanci after she was born.

I loved doing this, but sometimes I would be mischievous about it. I would open the cover of some book they gave me and I would read the story like this: “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.”

When reading a book to myself, I have always been tempted to cheat. If I don’t like one part of the story; or if I don’t like something that one of main characters is going through; or if the story is very long, and I wonder if it’s worth the effort, I have always been tempted to turn to the last page.

I never read the last page. I just give it a searching glance, to see if there is something there that I want to see; something to make me want to read to the end.
Isaiah and Paul don’t always do this; but they do it in the verses we have just read. In the eighth chapter of his book, Isaiah looked at the evils of his own day, and suddenly, as chapter nine begins, he saw the final victory. He described it as a great light, and as the gathering of spoils and the burning of the wreckage of war, after the battle was over. He saw the cause of it all as the baby whose birth made all things right, and then he saw the everlasting kingdom of that child.

In a few sentences he told a story that has been nearly three thousand years in the making, and is not over yet. And he left out all the bad stuff that we don’t want to see.

Paul did a similar thing in the verses we read from 1 Thessalonians. The followers of Jesus who were living in the Greek city of Thessalonica apparently wanted some information about the times and the dates leading up to “The Day of the Lord.” “The Day of the Lord” means the arrival of the kingdom of God, in its complete form, in its perfection, in justice and transformation. The day of the Lord is when the Lord Jesus will return, and set all things right, and make all things new.

Paul approached their question about the schedule of approaching events by skipping over the schedule completely and simply giving his friends a glance at the last page, or the next to the last page, of the story.

Paul told his fellow followers of Jesus that he did not need to write them about the schedule (the times and dates) because they already knew that the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2) This is very much what Jesus, himself, said. (Matthew 24:42-44; Mark 13:32)

The first chapter of the Book of Acts tells us that, just before Jesus left this world for heaven, his disciples asked about when he we going to bring the kingdom of God to them. Jesus told them, as his parting words: “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:7-8)
The simplest and clearest thing that Jesus and his apostles ever said about knowing the times, and dates, and schedule of his returning is that it is essentially unknowable for us. If Jesus tells us, through his apostles, that this knowledge is not for us, it is, in some sense, a sort of forbidden knowledge.

The fact that so many good and devout Christians have sought out this knowledge (in spite of what Jesus and his apostles have clearly said) is the best evidence we have of the patience of God. It is the perfect evidence that God has a great sense of humor. I mean this will all my heart.

This is very important. There is a purpose and method in how God wants to train our expectations. God wants to mold our expectations into something greater than expectation. God wants to mold our expectations into hope. The Lord has many ways of doing this.

The Lord enabled Isaiah to envision the horror of the evils of his time, and to look at horrors to come. And then the Lord said: Look beyond all of that to the coming of the perfect kingdom. Look to the coming of the King. “For to us a child is born. To us a son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6) Look at the victory.

“You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as people rejoice when dividing the plunder.” (Isaiah 9:3) The Lord does not help Isaiah envision our part in the battle. He only shows us enjoying the victory. It is as if the Lord to Isaiah and his people, “Look, in spite of the horrors, and the defeats, and the fears to come; wait for the king, live in the victory, and live in hope.”

We can sum up Paul as saying, first, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. It will be as unpreventable, and as sudden, and as inescapable as the beginning of childbirth for a pregnant woman.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

The next thing Paul said about the Day of the Lord is this. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24) Everything Paul said between mentioning the day that comes like a thief (or like birth pains), and giving us the assurance of the Lord who will faithfully see us through, amount to the simplest advice possible: live in the victory.

What is the victory here? Paul said it. “He died for us.” (5:10) “He who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (5:24)

This is all about hope. God does not want us to live just in times, and dates, and seasons, and expectations. God wants us to live in his victory. God wants us to live in hope.

In the block of the prophecy about the Messiah and the kingdom of God, in Isaiah chapter nine, nothing describes the course of the battle, and nothing explains the victory, except the birth of the baby. The birth of the baby is the victory. In Paul’s letter the victory is only described by the words: “He died for us” and “The one who calls you is faithful.”

Those who know me best know that I have an obsession with making things complicated. So I am the best one to tell you the simplest thing that the Bible tells you: keep it simple; be people who live in the victory of God and live in hope.

People forget that the armor we are supposed to put on, according to our reading in 1 Thessalonians (You can also find it in Ephesians chapter six.), is (after all) the armor of God. It comes from another place in Isaiah (Isaiah 59:17) and it is the armor that describes God’s victory over evil and sin. The victory belongs to God.
We are like little children dressing up in our parent’s clothing and playing their parts together; doing their work, living their daily life. But, as children we don’t really do our parents’ work or life their lives. In God’s armor, we are children arming ourselves for a war that the Lord, himself, has essentially fought and won.

It is not that our life is not a struggle. It is not that we don’t really have to fight a spiritual warfare, as well. We may not understand what is happening to us, or how things will turn out for us. But we are fighting a war that has been won in Christ; in the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At the end of World War Two, American service men and women who served in the South Pacific after the surrender of Japan, still fought and died fighting against defeated Japanese troops. The battle they fought and the blood that was shed was as real as any. But they were living in the victory. They lived in a hope that was not a future hope, but a present hope.

We pray “thy kingdom come” because it hasn’t come. It isn’t present yet. And yet the King who was born in Bethlehem, and who died on the cross, and who rose from the dead, and who will come again, lives and rules in our hearts. And, as Paul wrote: “He is faithful.”

As I was studying for this message I saw something that I had never seen before. The framework for what I saw is in Paul’s message: that the night and the darkness are this world’s darkness; and the day of the Lord is the coming of the Lord. In all of the, the day of the Lord is our time.

So, if we are children of the day, are we children of that day? Are we actually children of the day of the Lord? Is that our real world? Is that the place where we really live? Are we like children who have the last glorious, victorious page of a long difficult story already written in our hearts? Is everything we hope for already in us because “he who calls us is faithful”? I believe this is true.

What is life like in the day of the Lord? It’s telling makes a long list. I will select just a few words for your attention. There is faith, hope, and love in the armor of God (5:8). There is encouragement, nurture, respect, peace, patience, and kindness (5:11-15). There is always joy, prayer, and thanks (5:16-18). It’s true that there is warning and correction as well, but that is just a part of a much bigger picture.

“Rejoice always.” This is a word for those who live in the day of the Lord. Paul wants us to never forget that the times we are living through are truly a time for joy. The fact that we are somehow living in a time for joy often comes as a surprise to us.

We are to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” because we are to live with one foot set securely in the day of the coming of the Lord. This is the new creation. This is living in the victory of God. This is the fulfillment and realization of all hope.

The word advent means coming. We have a season of Advent to teach us about expectant living. It helps us identify with the expectations and hopes of the people of Israel as they waited for the coming of the Lord.

As we read the story of those people in the gospels, we realize that this was a coming which most of them did not understand. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, when he taught and healed among them, when he died on the cross, they did not understand the coming of the Lord.

It may do us good to identify with those people. It may be good for us to identify ourselves with people waiting for something that they think they understand but completely misunderstand. Yes, that’s us. There we are.

We are waiting for so much that is simply beyond our understanding. We are waiting for so much that we are not supposed to know beforehand; as Jesus told us. And we find it hard to be content or patient about that.

We are watching and waiting for a world that needs a new creation just as much as people in the darkness need the light. Jesus and his apostles have told us to do this. This watching and waiting, this expectation and hope, are part of our calling. The world needs people like us who are patiently watching and waiting for something more, for something completely different from the way life is now.

A schedule of future events will not tell us this, but the kingdom in our hearts will tell us what we are watching and waiting for. The kingdom of God in our hearts, Jesus in our hearts, is like a blueprint that will guide us in the work we have to do. “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) will give us the words we need to show this kingdom to the world.

Both Isaiah and Paul tell us to envision the victory and to live in it just as if it actually lived in us. But it does live in us, because Jesus lives in us. “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
There is a lot to learn, and it is very important for us to know what it is that we are not to know. The basic stuff to live by is very, very simple. Live in the victory of God. Live in hope. Can you say you are doing this? “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

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