Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Advent—the time of getting ready for Christmas! To help us prepare I invite you to consider how the Bethlehem innkeeper might reflect on that first Christmas.
The First Christmas: Innkeeper (video clip: 2:20)
“Listen, if I knew then what I know now,” said our innkeeper, “there would have been room in my inn—oy vey, I would have given up my own bed.” “If I knew then what I know now;” hindsight is a wonderful thing, foresight more difficult.
On the first Sunday of Advent the lectionary reading from the gospel is of Jesus’s promise to return; it is a reading of foresight. It is the doctrine of faith we confess each time we say the Apostles’ Creed; “and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Admittedly, our minds are more focussed on getting ready for Christmas. We do want to be ready to celebrate Christmas; the reading reminds us that we also need to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. One difference is that we know when Christmas will arrive—December 25th; the coming of Son of Man is at an unexpected hour. It is the unexpectedness that creates some issues for us.
The story that the innkeeper (in the video clip) told about his mother is a good analogy for how to be ready for the unexpected coming of the Son of Man. The Jews of the first century longed for the promise of a Messiah to be fulfilled. Like us they had a promise but did not know when. December 25th was not marked on their calendars. “You always set an extra plate at the table,” said the innkeeper’s mother, “because you never who God may bring your way—you always make room.”
1. Not knowing when is no barrier to being ready, according to Jesus. But, at this time of year, getting ready for Christmas is far more urgent, it seems. Twenty-four days and counting. Most of us do some decorating of our homes for Christmas. At our home the Crèche is the first of our Christmas decorations/furnishings to find its place. We like to include grandchildren in this event so we can talk of the characters as we place them—angel, wise men, shepherd, animals, Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus. Decorating for Christmas is typically a happy occasion. I so enjoy this sanctuary when it is decorated for Christmas.
During Advent and Christmas this year the theme of the sermons is about Christmas furnishings and adornments—the furniture of our minds, that is. I plan to explore how we think about Christmas, where do we have things placed, how are the furnishings palced, how we perceive the glory of the Babe of Bethlehem. Do we have our hearts and minds decorated for Christmas?
You see when the innkeeper’s mother set the table with and extra place it told a story; a story of expectation borne of faith, borne of relationship with God. God made a promise; so an extra place I set. What do our Christmas furnishings say about us? One of those adornments is that promise of our saviour to return. You will notice that in Jesus’s promise not knowing when—the unexpectedness—was not to be a barrier to being ready. In the days before cell phones you may recall waiting anxiously by the window watching for a loved one to come home who was delayed beyond the time you anticipated them to be home. Now we walk around anxiously redialing our phone wondering why they are not answering. This is not how Jesus anticipated we would live. His promise does not mean that we are forever glued to a spot looking out the window, robe in hand, furtively glancing to the eastern sky.
Some Christians believe that the Mount of Olives is the place where Christ will arrive upon his return. (Based on Acts 1:11-12) If the Mount of Olives is the place then, according to a Los Angeles Times report, America’s two biggest Christian broadcasters are well positioned to cover it live, thanks to acquisitions of adjacent Jerusalem studios on a hill overlooking the Old City. One of those networks beams a 24-hour-a-day live webcam from its terrace. I don’t think this is what Jesus meant by his admonition “be ready.”
About the matter of when, Jesus said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” However we understand what it meant for Jesus to be fully human it is clear that he embraces all that it means to be human. He didn’t say to his followers—“I know when, I’m just not telling.” Jesus, as fully human, lives his life with the same uncertainty with respect to when. Our clue on how the “be ready” is to observe how Jesus lived.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of a vandal who broke into a department store one night. But rather than steal things, he rearranged all the price tags. The next morning the sales people and customers came upon one surprise after another: diamond necklaces on sale for a dollar, and cheap costume-jewelry earrings costing thousands of dollars. The gospel—and Jesus is this gospel—is like that vandal, Kierkegaard says. It rearranges all our price tags.
The world has its focus on stars—hockey and football greats, movie actors, TV personalities, famous authors, rock stars, on the rich and the powerful. The gospel tells us to focus our eyes, not on stars, but on servants—people whose left hand does not inform their right hand what it is doing, people who do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than themselves, people whose attitude to life is that of Christ Jesus himself.
The gospel, in other words, turns our values upside-down; to elevate, not the rich and the attractive and the famous; but the poor, the marginal, those who mourn. Instead of pursuing happiness, the gospel tells us to pursue service. Instead of extending vengeance, Jesus tells us to extend forgiveness. Instead of hoarding material things, Jesus tells us to lay up treasures in heaven. This is how to live ready; how to prepare for the unexpected. Not knowing when is no barrier to being ready.
2. We may not know when but we do know who is coming. The one who is coming to judge is our saviour. Over the manager at Bethlehem that held the child looms the shadow of a cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is the prism through which we read the gospels. The birth narratives about Jesus cannot be separated from the cross as if we were talking about two different people. It is one story. Jesus is born to save. As the hymn writer Charles Wesley penned in the carol we love to sing—Hark, The Herald Angels Sing—“God and sinners reconciled, born to give them second birth.” And when we stand at the foot of the cross we see that the one who is judge has poured himself out without remainder for our sakes. His love is not in doubt; the believer welcomes his coming.
The cross of Jesus Christ first of all discloses our predicament. We are judged as sinners before a holy God and therefore deserve nothing but condemnation. As awful as that news is the cross of Jesus Christ simultaneously announces the cure. Sobered as we are at the disclosure of our situation before God, we nevertheless rejoice in the disclosure and thank God for it. For the revelation of our predicament is simultaneously the revelation of God’s provision for us. Certainly the cross acquaints us with the bad news about ourselves. But the cross acquaints us with the bad news only in acquainting us with the good news. For the good news is good just because the cross highlights our sin for us only in the course of bearing it and bearing it away. The cross acquaints us with the disease only in the course of providing us the cure. The cross informs us of our condemnation only in the course of telling us that someone else has borne that condemnation for us.
I invite you to pause for a moment and consider that there is a difference between justice and judgment. Justice means that people get precisely what they deserve, nothing more than what they deserve, nothing better than what they deserve. To plead for justice only is to plead that God will grant every last one of us (sinners) neither more nor less than what we deserve. Is there any good news here?
In biblical Hebrew there is no word for justice. The Hebrew word is MISHPAT, judgement. Judgement is very different from justice. Justice is a philosophical principle, an abstract category; judgement, on the other hand, is a personal category. Judgement is the activity of a person. Here judgement is the activity of the living God himself—whose heart is mercy. Judgement is therefore to be welcomed. We should run to God for his judgement. Why? Because God judges us for the sake of saving us. In other words, there is mercy in God’s judgement; in fact mercy is the ultimate purpose of God’s judgement. There is no mercy at all in sheer justice. God bothers to judge us only because his compassion aims at saving us. To put it another way, the great physician pronounces the starkest diagnosis only because he intends the greatest cure.
At what cost? In other words, how far will his compassion go? Is there a limit to it? His mercy is oceans deep, impenetrably deep. Still, we are not left clueless about the cost. After all, as repulsive as you and I might find the cross, our revulsion is nothing compared to the anguish of him whose cross it is. Father and Son are one in their anguish, for they are one in their self-giving for the sake of us who deserve nothing more than justice, one in their love for us who, because of that love, are visited not with simple justice but with a judgement that clothes eternal mercy. As the Apostle wrote; “He (God) who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also with him give us everything else?”
What the believer understands is that to cling to Jesus is to find ourselves put in the right before God, to be given new status, new standing. “Justification” is a word that many Protestants throw around but few understand. To be justified, biblically, isn’t to be excused. (Sinners can never be excused.) To be justified is to be put in the right before God, to be given new standing with him. To be justified is to be given the same standing before God as the standing of that Son with whom the Father is ever pleased. Faith clings to the Son with whom the Father is pleased. The judgment about the believer has been rendered in Jesus Christ. This is why we look forward to his coming; he loves beyond our imagining; judgment has already been rendered. Knowing who is coming makes us glad to be ready.
3. I so enjoy having our grandchildren come for a sleep-over. There always seems to be lots of excitement and great amounts of fun. One of our grandsons told his mother that his grandparents’ house (our home) was “the house of yes”. No wonder they are geared up for excitement when they come. Still, I notice that as fun as it is they look forward to going home. I note that the signs of home sickness increases with each succeeding night of the sleep-over. They may love to be with us but they long for home; Nana and Papa’s house may be the house of “yes,” but it’s not home.
John Calvin was a giant thinker of the Protestant Reformation. Every writer speaks out of the perspectives of their life experience. Calvin’s life experience was that of a refugee and like all refugees Calvin knew that life is precarious, earthly rulers can’t be trusted, betrayal is always at hand; above all, Calvin knew that like refugees we are haunted by an outer and inner homelessness that will be overcome only in the eschaton; only in the world to come.
We all long for home. We may love our places here but it’s not home. Christmas is God coming among us in Jesus to bring us home; the coming of the Son of man is the fulfilment, the goal of where all this is leading. Jesus is coming to bring us home. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Note: Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio for this week's sermon.