Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
The Advent season serves a twofold purpose. In it we recognize and celebrate the first coming of Christ, which is important because that is how we got saved. But Advent itself means “to come,” and it really speaks of the Second Coming of Christ, when the King shall come in all of His glory. This coming has been promised to us, through the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the epistles of the New Testament itself. It is something that we remind ourselves of on a regular basis, so that when He comes, we might be ready, because as Jesus himself noted, we need to be watching and aware.
In an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, this conversation takes place. In the first frame Calvin speaks to Hobbes and says: "Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got." In the second frame he explains "You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you’d be sorry you put off your pleasures. That’s what I say - live for the moment." And then he asks Hobbes: "What’s your motto?" Hobbes replies: "My motto is - Look down the road."
Today we began the Advent season. We've lighted the first candle, the candle of hope. As we heard a few minutes ago, this candle reminds us of the hope God gave His people when He promised to send them a Messiah, a Savior, a Deliverer. The candle reminds us that prophecies were fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. And it invites us to look down the road in hope to the day of Christ’s Second Coming, when all the promises that were initially fulfilled at His birth will be completely fulfilled at His return.
(And by the way, there are over three hundred promises – three hundred prophecies in the Old Testament – that point to the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ.)
What I would like to do this morning is to take a quick look at the promises we live our lives by. Just very quickly, have us examine our own lives, see what promises that we hold onto, for better or for worse.
Dr. Jerome Frank at Johns Hopkins talks about our “assumptive world.” What he means is that all of us make assumptions about life, about God, about ourselves, about others, and about the way things are. I would say that these are the promises we hold onto in our lives. He argues that when our assumptions are true to reality, we live relatively happy, well-adjusted lives. But when our assumptions are distant from reality, we become confused and angry and disillusioned. (Haddon Robinson, "How Does God Keep His Promises?," Preaching Today, Tape No. 130).
Nothing is more destructive than hoping in failed promises. Everybody knows what that is like, and how much it hurts. But we have to believe something. Humankind was made to believe and worship God. And even those who deny the existence of God then find something else to worship and believe in. For many these days, it is “science,” although it is a religion of science, rather than science itself.
So our world is full of promises, promises of things that will give meaning and purpose and value to your life. Promises that you don’t have to feel what you’re feeling. Promises that everything is going to be all right. Promises that tomorrow is going to be a better day. Promises that you’re better than that, that you’re pretty and strong and smart and loved and liked. And we live our lives by these promises. And how well we pick these promises is how good our lives are.
I don't need to tell you, there are a lot of people having a very hard time. There are so many people, day to day, who are putting their hopes in promises that are deceiving, self-serving, and simply false. As some folks get more and more desperate, they try more and more chancy and destructive things. It’s hard to watch. You see this, frankly, in one of the biggest sinks for money that is out there, and that's the lottery, the state-sponsored lotteries. Even if half of the money goes to education, the people that are pouring their money into it, hoping to strike it lucky, are those that are poor. Those that have means don't bother. People learn (if they are lucky) the hard way what promises to hold onto; but many lives are deeply scarred or destroyed before that.
Church, Advent, our relationship with God itself, is all about promises. Our faith is about the promise of the salvation of our souls from sin and death, and our deliverance to a new promised land – the Kingdom of God! That is an incredible, huge, glorious promise for each one of us. And as we begin Advent, it is right that we remember again just how huge and glorious that promise is.
That is what we will be celebrating this Christmas; the fulfillment of the promises of God. And our theme, as was outlined in the first hymn – we sang only one verse of it, and we're going to sing a verse each week – is what if that Kingdom came today? What if Christ came back today? What if the promise was fulfilled today? Would you be ready? Would you be joyful? Would you be waiting?
It has become a Christian cliché, and therefore in danger of losing its meaning, to say that “Jesus is the reason of the season,” and that we must remember the “real meaning of Christmas” amidst all the hoopla. The extent to which we are relying on the real promises of God, we have great cause to celebrate. It is to that extent that we can truly celebrate the meaning of Christmas. In other words, the more you believe in the promises of God, the greater your cause for celebration.
The passage in Jeremiah is written by that prophet when things looked real bad for his people. About 600 years before Jesus, they are about to be taken away from their Promised Land because for generations they have been not relying on the promise-giver, but on any other sort of promise. Everything that has given them meaning and identity, it all looks like it will be destroyed. And right then, Jeremiah says that one will rise up – a Messiah – another David, who will restore Jerusalem to justice and righteousness. It is said that He, himself, will be our righteousness. This is the promise that was fulfilled in Christ.
Our lives are also confusing. Each of us is in a different place, and it is hard to lump us all together in regards to how well or how poorly we have done in choosing the promises we follow. But all of us, in the deepest needs in our lives, and, finally, in everything, have only one final source of promises that will be wholly, completely, true, reliable, forgiving, freeing, meaningful, real, and everything that we need. Jesus came at Christmas, he's coming at the end of the world, and he's going to make everything in the world right, and he's going to make you right as well. That is the big promise, and the one worth holding onto and celebrating above all others.
Professional golfer Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer at age 33. He had just won a PGA championship and had ten tournament victories to his credit. He was doing well. He wrote, “A genuine feeling of fear came over me. I could die from cancer. Then another reality hit me even harder. I’m going to die eventually anyway, whether from cancer or something else. It’s just a question of when. Everything I had accomplished in golf became meaningless to me. All I wanted to do was live.”
Then he remembered something that Larry Moody, who teaches a Bible study on the tour, had said to him. “Zinger, we’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We’re in the land of the dying trying to get to the land of the living.” “Zinger” recovered from chemotherapy and returned to the PGA tour. He’s done pretty well. But that bout with cancer changed him. He wrote, “I’ve made a lot of money since I’ve been on the tour, and I’ve won a lot of tournaments, but that happiness is always temporary. The only way you will ever have true contentment is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m not saying that nothing ever bothers me and I don’t have problems, but I feel like I’ve found the answer to the six-foot hole” (Robert Russell, "Resurrection Promises," Preaching Today, Tape No. 151 cited on www.preachingtoday.com).
When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, I think she touched more people in the eighteen months after that diagnosis than she had in the previous eighteen years. Because when you know you're going to die, when it's an inevitability that's been set in front of you, with something like a terminal illness, in many ways it frees you to be bold. It encourages you to share the hope that you have for after that death, that transition. There's even a country song about that, “Live Like You Were Dying.”
I believe there are two kinds of people that this message is addressed to. The first are those who are devastated because you have been putting your hope in all the wrong places. It might be someone here. It's more likely someone who is listening online, or by DVD, perhaps at the nursing home. And if they have never known Jesus, the real promise for each of our lives, I would invite that person to trust Him, the one real promise.
But I also think this is for those of us who have known the promise of God and get sidetracked by smaller, busy promises of the season, of the world, and even of the peripheral things of our church and our religion. This season, I ask you to remember how amazing, how glorious, how deep, how much there is to celebrate from the depths of our heart in the promise of God, this little child who saved our lives forever.
Don’t let anything distract your trust in that promise. As Jesus himself said, we are called to be alert. We are called to be on watch, we are called to be ready. The day will come. We don't know when, but we need to be about His business. You who call yourselves servants need to be serving – serving the King, when He comes. And may your promise be fulfilled, so that when He sees you, He can say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have kept the promises I asked of you.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.