This is the message I presented for the 1st Sunday in Advent (December 1, 2002) at Tompkins Corners. The Scriptures were Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37.
John Wesley did not want to form a new church. All his life he was dedicated to reforming and returning the Church of England to its roots. But there came a time when he found that he must make changes that would ultimately lead to the formation of the Methodist Church in America.
If the preachers that Wesley was sending to America were to be effective preachers and ministers to the people, they had to be ordained. For without the ordination, the rites of baptism, marriage, and communion could not be performed. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is the nature of my serving this church and the ones that I have served before as well as many other pastors who began their careers as pastoral assistants or lay pastors. For Wesley, the problem was compounded by the fact that the authorities that held the power of ordination would not ordain the preachers that Wesley was sending as ministers to the colonies, leaving the colonists without proper ministers and leaving Wesley in a quandary.
Wesley decided that he could not allow the situation to continue, thus he began ordaining ministers, empowering them to further the Word of the Gospel through baptisms, weddings, and communion. This obviously did not endear Wesley to the powers that be in the Church of England but since they would not help in the matters at hand, Wesley felt that he had no alternative.
That is the point. There are times when you must do something, when you must take action because the situation requires action and no one is willing to take the steps towards a solution. Now, I have made this argument before and there are some that say that in doing so I justify the actions of others to accomplish things that I view morally wrong or not within their view. Whatever actions one takes must be consistent with what one believes and we must always remember that it is not to either you or I that one must answer for their actions. One way to look at it is that if you are for peace, then violence can never be used as justification for peace.
For the people of Israel, such was the moment in the Old Testament reading today. They now understood the consequences of their actions. After having witnessed the many miracles of God and His awe-inspiring presence, they were beginning to realize that He wasn’t there for them at that moment. Suddenly, they were realizing that all that they had done only took them away from God. He may not have been hiding as they thought but it was clear that they, because of their sins and actions, could not see Him.
Jesus spoke of the same signs of thunder and lightning as signs of His Second Coming. But they were not signs of danger and demise but rather a hope for the future for all. Just as the fig tree blooming in the spring is a sign of the sure coming of summer, so too are the signs of the coming of Christ as sign of hope for the future. The growth of the fig tree, the sprouting of the leaves brings a sign that Christ will return and that we are not forgotten. But we cannot simply wait for the signs; after all, as Jesus said at the end of the Gospel lesson, we can never now the true time and place of His coming.
But how can we prepare? How can we know when Christ will come if He Himself has said that we will not know that time or place? It is not by listening to others who may be nothing more than false prophets.
When you read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, you can sense the sadness that Paul must have had as he wrote the letter. But, even in sadness, it was still a letter of support and joy. Paul begins by giving thanks to God for the Corinthians, even though the church at that time was experiencing many problems. This praise for God, rather than praising the Corinthians for their work, is in deep contrast to the other letters he wrote where he commended and rejoiced in the other churches. Paul does not praise the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches. Instead he praised God who worked in them.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were brought about by what was transpiring in the church. It was a seriously troubled church split by factions seeking to drag each other into court, crippled by the abuse of the spiritual gifts they had received, and easily tempted to return to the old ways, the ways before they had received the Gospel. It was a church quickly falling apart, choosing sides to follow instead of staying true to the Gospel.
This was a church that was only four years old and it would be easy to write this off to “growing pains”, of an immaturity that they would eventually grow out of. When you read Corinthians, it might be easy to get confused and think that Paul was writing to a more modern church in the 21st century. That wouldn’t be hard for me, since Corinth, MS, is just down the road a bit from my mom’s house. In this day and age, we find it very easy to exalt dynamic leaders who engage us with their charisma and own leadership abilities. We find it easy to take sides in arguments that are more about personalities than anything else.
When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement will set in. When we let the leader or speaker become the focus, we loose the focus of the Gospel message. And when we lose the focus of the Gospel message we come back to that time in Isaiah when the people of Israel feared for the future.
Is there hope for the future, even today? Are we quickly becoming like the church of Corinth, following leaders here on earth but failing to follow the Gospel? For Corinth, Paul still saw a bright future but it required some major changes in the lives of those in the church. The balance of the letters to Corinth are Paul’s sections about coming together as a church and as a congregation, of showing unity through what was inside each of them. Paul’s letters are a call for the people of Corinth to make a decision, to understand that they had come to a point in time when the future would be decided.
It is the same for each one of us. There will come a time when we will be called upon to make a decision, to decide that this is the point in our life where things must change. John Newton and his decision to turn that slave ship around came to mind when I began working on this sermon. Here was a man who probably had every thing he could want or desire; everything that is except internal peace. But something happened. Maybe it were just thoughts about how he earned his living; maybe it was just looking at the human cargo his ship carried across the Atlantic that caused him to question his own life. But it is clear that something made him question what he had done and what he should do. What we do know is that John Newton saw the future and did not like what he saw. He knew that he was at that point when a change must occur, when he had to say to Christ was his savior.
The same is true for us today. There will be times in our lives when we hear the sky rumble and see the lightning flash. But these will be events that only we will experience. There will be times in our lives when it will feel as if we are sinking under the weight of our pride. Then we will know that we have come to that point in our lives where change is necessary. But the problem is that we may not have the time to change. The signs of the Lord’s coming are not the times to change one’s life.
Advent is a celebration of the coming of Christ; it is a time of preparation. It gives us the time to prepare not only for the coming of Christ as an infant, new to the world but for Christ the Savior, our savior, our hope for peace in a world of trouble and darkness.