I will fulfil the promise I made
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Well it’s official; Christmas is just around the corner. Oh, I know that many of you have your Christmas planning and preparation well underway. Its official in that today is the first Sunday of Advent. Today we begin looking ahead to the birth of him whom St. John said “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
I know that there is anxiousness over the way we expend ourselves for Christmas. We complain about the over-indulgence in gift-giving, in eating, in drinking, in the events that crowd our calendar, and in holiday making in general. Christians worry over the loss of focus on why we have Christmas at all—it seems that the event has been co-opted for any and every other purpose. Every not-for-profit and charitable organization behaves as if Christmas was organized for them to do fund-raising; for profit organizations appear to believe the same thing.
But in the midst of all the over-indulgence, loss of focus, and co-opting of purpose I wonder if Christians make enough of Christmas. Those close to me will know of my resistance to the “Santa-fication” of Christmas; I have, at times, been accused of being a tad “Grinch-ish”. So, some of these people may be thinking that I have lost my way. What I am asking is do I, as a Christian, have an adequate appreciation for the magnitude of what is going on at the birth of Bethlehem’s babe? “I will fulfill the promise I made”, said God through the prophet Jeremiah. I think that if we understood the magnitude of what God is doing in Jesus we couldn’t design a celebration grand enough to do it justice. Jesus is God fulfilling his promise made through Israel to humanity to remedy all its ills.
1. Does the earth have a future? A brief survey of so-called environmental organizations’ websites paints a very gloomy picture. The continuing education department of Emmanuel College (United Church School at the University of Toronto) is offering a course this year on Science for Theology. A portion of this course is devoted to discussion of “competing theories about the end of the universe.” The online encyclopedia Wikipedia states that the biological and geological future of the earth can be extrapolated based upon the estimated effects of several long-term influences. ...The most probable fate of the planet is absorption by the Sun in about 7.5 billion years.
Here is my question. If the earth is on a path to some future disintegration/implosion why would I need to care about the future?
In the first century the philosophies of the day proffered similar theories about the end of the earth, albeit without the scientific measurement tools of today. When the Apostle Paul penned that blessing to the Thessalonian believers that looked forward to “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13) he did so against a backdrop of philosophies that offered no hope with respect to the earth’s future.
Stoicism was one of the dominant philosophies of Paul’s day. Stoics believes that the world did have a narrative, but in that narrative the world would go on and on, and then one day would dissolve into fire, and then be reborn and everything would happen all over again. This is to see the earth and human life within it as caught in an endless cycle. In this thought the ideas of past and future become features of this cycle like cogs on a wheel. History repeats itself, as some say. The result is that God and the world collapse into one another. The human is one aspect of the great divine.
Epicureans were also popular; they believed in random process. They were the Darwinians of the first century, if you like, believing that the world consists of molecules doing their own thing, and if there is a god, he’s so far away he’s not really worth bothering about. Not much hope there so the focus of these people was on the here and now; there is no future so you had better have money, land, and slaves so you can have a comfortable life.
The Apostle Paul taught that Jesus was the fulfilment of the hope for the world; the hope held out in the promises of God made to Israel for the world. The Hebrew Scriptures looked forward to that day God would flood the world with his knowledge and love and glory, so that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and a little child will lead them. In service of that hope there was a promise of land; the promised land flowing with milk and honey was a metaphor for the renewal of the whole world. The promise was that God would do for the whole world what he did for the temple; he would come back and dwell in his world and with his people for ever. This means the defeat of every tyranny and the devil in every form. And this means resurrection.
Paul sees every bit of that hope fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah and implemented by the Spirit. Christmas is the celebration of the initiation of that great event in history in which God would secure the future of his people forever. Christmas marks the arrival of God through whom the power that tyrannized the old creation has been broken, defeated, overthrown. The resurrection that the Jewish people believed would take place at the end of the age is surprisingly brought forward into the middle of history as Jesus is raised from the dead. He is the prototype of what is to come and the guarantee to his people that this is our future in him. Christmas ought to have us up celebrating!
The hope of the gospel has Christians looking forward. Advent reminds us that we are not to look back, but ahead. In Advent we stand on tiptoe anticipating the very blessing which we cannot give ourselves. In Advent we await Christmas as eagerly as the youngster awaits opening the first gift. THE gift of Christmas for us all, of course, is that new addition to the human family which is more than an addition; the gift is he himself who is both humanity renewed and lord of the renewed humanity.
2. I recently attended a performance of the musical “Sister Act”. You may have seen the movie by the same name. It is the story of a night club singer who, fearing for her life, finds shelter in a monastery. The story shows the impact that the night club singer and the monastery sisters have on each other. In the stage play there is a scene where the Mother Superior and the singer resolve their conflict in how they see life. The Mother Superior expressed her wish that this singer can now see how God has been at work helping her; the singer responds that she hoped the Mother Superior can see that it was humans helping one another that triumphed here. And then they both seemed to agree they were saying the same thing. I must admit that their resolution did not leave me very hopeful.
With respect to hope, the philosophies of our day leave us in very much in the same place as those of the first century did with the people then. We are either trying to cling to what we perceive we have or pining for recovery of something lost. We are either myopically focussed on the now or looking back hoping somehow to have it again. Look at our focus on retaining youthfulness. Everyone over 25 years of age are loathe to admit the truth that gravity and gravy are having their way with us. Don’t look back—look forward. We are promised in the resurrection a body like our Lord’s whose physicality will not be subject to decay. Live what are now to the glory of God because who you are in him will never be lost.
I hear the world’s attention to clinging to what we have or recovery of what we had sung as themes in many of the songs of our age. Some of you will know that singer Enya; many of the songs she sings were written by Roma Ryan. One of those beautiful yet haunting songs is entitled, If I could be where you are... Listen to the lyrics.
Where are you this moment
only in my dreams.
You're missing, but you're always
a heartbeat from me.
I'm lost now without you,
I don't know where you are.
I keep watching, I keep hoping,
but time keeps us apart.
Is there a way I can find you,
is there a sign I should know,
is there a road I could follow
to bring you back home?
Winter lies before me
now you're so far away.
In the darkness of my dreaming
the light of you will stay.
If I could be close beside you,
if I could be where you are,
if I could reach out and touch you
and bring you back home.
Is there's a way I can find you,
Is there's a sign I should know,
Is there's a road I can follow
to bring you back home to me?
I hear in this song the angst of being separated from the one whom you love; the one who in life is the best half of you. The song may not be just about losing a loved one in death but it certainly calls this to mind—“where are you this moment—only in my dreams.” When I consider this personally and reflect on losing the one who fills up my life in only the way she can this song’s haunting wish for a way, a sign, a road to “bring you back home” leaves me in a place of intense melancholy.
At funerals I hear people promise their departed loved one that they will always be in the heart. “You’re missing, but you’re always a heartbeat from me.” What I know about myself is that my faculty to remember fades. My wife Valerie claims that I promised to outlive her so that she will be first to go; that I would be the one to deal with this kind of loss. I can tell you this I find little comfort in thinking that I can retain something of her in my heart; if the best we can say to our longing question “where are you this moment” is “only in my dreams”, I find this very empty. I want her living, breathing, in the flesh, and in the fullness of her person.
Here is what Jesus says to us his disciples. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-4) Jesus has promised us a home; we look forward to reunion in the home there. We don’t cling to a wishful dreaming of bringing someone back home here.
Here is a beautiful thing for Valerie, all those things she finds annoying about me now (just a couple) will be fixed there. In that place only love will come from us; only self-forgetful self-giving. I know our Saviour said that there will be changes with respect to marriage; but friendship and love will not be diminished in those changes. However this unfolds we know our Saviour who only wants good for us; the changes will be so perfect we will marvel that we hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Friends, my counsel to you is to talk of these things with loved ones. This is not to say that parting will be without pain, but it is not without hope. Rest in the certainty of our risen Lord; be people who look forward. I know that some among us dread Christmas because someone will not present at the table to celebrate. Those who have gone before us are celebrating Christmas; they worship with that great throng whose faith is now sight. Some are not at the table because of circumstance, because of resentments, because of illness. In celebrating Christmas we bear witness to Jesus who is bringing us to that great culmination when all will be set right.
3. I began this message by claiming if we truly understood the magnitude of what God is doing in Jesus we couldn’t design a Christmas celebration grand enough to do it justice. We have barely scratched the surface of its magnitude in the few minutes of this message. I wanted to talk more with you about this hope. Many people worry about bringing children into this world fearing for what they might face in their life; this hope witnesses that children have the promise of a future so grand we can’t yet imagine.
In Christ our dust-to dust exile is overarched by the promise of resurrection: our destiny is not death, decomposition of body and dissolution of personhood. Our destiny is eternal life at God's own hand. The gospel is good news just because it announces a new reality so winsome as to breathe its own invitation. In Advent we don't look back in nostalgia and regret; we look ahead in eagerness and confidence. For there is given to us the one whom all humankind craves, whom Christians know to be Jesus the Christ, and who caused Mary's heart to sing, even as he will make our hearts sing for ever and ever.