-- by The Rev. Jason Ke (trans. J.L.)
(A Sermon for Sunday, November 30, 2014, at St.James' English Language Service)
First Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Good morning, my dear friends in Christ!
In the Season of Advent there are four Sundays. The Biblical lessons for these four Sundays all have something to do with the coming of God’s son, Jesus Christ. It is hoped that these lessons from the Bible will help us learn more about the significance of the Nativity of Jesus, that is, the Lord Jesus’ coming into the world.
Only when we know the meaning of the Nativity can we celebrate Christmas in the right way – and with the right attitude! Otherwise, we might just follow secular customs and become “slaves to social conventions.” If this is or becomes the case, then we will unfortunately disregard the spiritual significance of Christmas and, to make matters even worse, “materialize” what we do in celebration of the Lord Jesus’s coming.
As you will see, the Biblical passages for us to read in Advent are quite serious. They may be a bit confusing, or very hard to comprehend. But they are worth reading and pondering. By reading these passages attentively, we can hopefully get a divine revelation about the Truth.
I. People in Trouble Asking God for Help
From Isaiah 64:1-2 we learn that the people of Israel were earnestly praying for God’s coming from heaven to free them from suffering.
The Easy-to-Read Version of the Bible describes these verses this way: “If you would tear open the skies and come down to earth, then everything would change. The mountains would burst into flames like burning bushes. The mountains would boil like water on the fire. Then your enemies would learn about you. And all nations would shake with fear when they see you.” (Isaiah 64:1-2, The Easy-to-Read Version)
About the eighth century BC, the people of Israel, who had been held captive in the Babylonian Empire for a long time, were allowed to return to their homeland. They cheerfully returned to Jerusalem, but when they saw that the Temple as well as their homes had been ruined by their enemies, they couldn't help but burst out in tears, crying. They cried to the Lord God, asking him to come down from heaven and save them.
But the Lord God did not come to them as soon as expected. Instead, the Old-Testament prophets proclaimed that a great, great King would, sooner or later, come to lead and liberate the people of Israel – This King would be the Messiah, or called “Christ.”
The Israelites kept waiting for the Messiah. Nearly 700 years later, when the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, the Jews did not accept him, because he appeared to be so very humble, by no means like any powerful king on (the) earth.
Bound by the traditional misconceptions about “the King,” the Jews failed to see the glory and greatness manifested by Jesus Christ, who looked so humble when he came into the world. The stubborn Jews, indeed, missed the opportunities to welcome Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
But St. Paul clearly stated, writing about Jesus, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2:8-9, NRSV) St. Paul had seen the Lord Jesus’ power and glory,
You see, Jesus was humble, and he walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above, so that “in honor of the name of Jesus, all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees.” And all should “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11, TEV & NRSV)
II. The Path of Confession and Thanksgiving
There are two ways, or more precisely, a “dual-track” path, or road, by which we can get closer to God. The dual “tracks” of this path are Confession and Thanksgiving. In a figurative sense, without following what I call “The Path of Confession and Thanksgiving,” no one can approach God and be reconciled with Him.
The prophet Isaiah made an honest confession. He said, “All of us have been sinful; even our best actions are filthy through and through. Because of our sins we are like leaves that wither and are blown away by the wind.” (Isaiah 64:6, TEV)
St. Paul, on the other hand, repeatedly expressed himself in his letters, “I thank the Lord,” “I give my thanks to my God…” He regularly said something like these to express his gratitude to the Lord God.
And, as you can see in The Book of Common Prayer, which we use in our worship services, we have The Confession (認罪文) and we have The General Thanksgiving (總謝文). Both the confession and thanksgiving are meant for us to heal or mend our relationships between each other and God.
Without confession, meaning “with no repentance,” how can a human being improve himself and be really pleasing to the Lord?
Similarly, if a human being doesn't appreciate the wonderful creation of God, and doesn’t show gratitude for all good things that God and other people have done for him, how can he be truly humble? … I think this kind of person would unconsciously become too much proud, maybe he or she would become so arrogant that he would look down on all others, and yet crave, or yearn, for their respect. Well, I tell you, nobody would respect such a person. Such a person has already committed “pride” – one of the Seven Deadly Sins, according to the Bible. (For information of the “deadly sins,” you may see Galatians 5:19-21, Colossians 2:18-23, Proverbs 6:16-19, etc.)
Regarding confession and thanksgiving, few churches have the particular kinds of prayers printed out for their congregations to use, as we do – We use The Book of Common Prayer. However, if we read these prayers in a way that “we say but we do not mean” (有口無心), then we will not heal, but harm, the relationship with God.
This is an important point, and I think it bears repeating. If we read these prayers in a way that “we say but we do not mean,” then we will not heal, but harm, the relationship with God.
This is similar to an unfortunate way that we sometimes say “Thank you” or “I am sorry” to each other. When we are sincere, we may build a good personal relationship with one another; however, if we do not mean what we say, then saying “Sorry” or “Thank you” will neither do us nor the other person any good at all; maybe it will cause the opposite effect instead.
III. Jesus Christ Being the Lord of All Beings
Now let us move on to the Gospel reading for today. In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 13, we see what “horrible things” would happen in the very last days, just before Jesus Christ comes back “with great power and glory.”
The detailed description of those terrifying events before “the end of the world” is to show us that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all – all things and all beings. With the glory of God the Father, Jesus Christ dominates all beings and takes charge of everything.
Jesus’ being humble does no harm to his glory; nor will it diminish his power and greatness. When necessary, he would even change the natural phenomena; say, he might change the motions of celestial bodies, or stop them from moving!
Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days … the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25, NRSV) Such unusual “manifestations” are also a part of the great revelation of the Truth; they all are for the purpose of saving the Lord’s chosen people – including all of us, I think, who are faithful Christians!
Yes, from The Gospel of Mark, chapter 13, we do learn that “Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in the clouds with great power and glory. He will send the angels out to the four corners of the earth to gather God’s chosen people from one end of the world to the other.” (Mark 13:26-27, TEV)
In conclusion, I’d like to bring two matters to your attention:
First, we believe that God controls everything. His great power is beyond our understanding. It is part of the mystery of the almighty and merciful God, which human beings cannot comprehend, but can only believe.
Second, we often say that we live in the period of time between the Ascension of Jesus (around 33 AD) and his “Second Coming” (also called “the Second Advent of Christ”), but none of us really knows when Jesus Christ will come back again. What we can do is “Keep alert” – As the Bible says, “Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33, TEV)
During this period of time – the time between Jesus’ ascending to heaven and his coming back again, is our Lord Christ far away from us? Is the distance between Jesus Christ and us very long? – No! He is not far away or a “long distance” from us at all.
Quite the opposite is true:
Referring to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16-20, we’ll see that right before Jesus Christ went up to heaven, he told his disciples something very important, something about The Great Commission. And he concluded, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of age.” (Matthew 28:20b)