As we’ve just heard, the Service of the Hanging of the Greens is a way of getting our house in order in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
It works the same for both aspects of his coming – his first coming, as the Christ-child born in Bethlehem; and his second coming, as the exalted Savior, reigning over us all and creation.
Like expecting an honored guest to arrive at any moment, we clean the house and hang festive banners and put out our best wares – in other words, we roll out the red carpet – to give him a royal welcome.
Waiting is the hard part. Having done all the preparation, we’re pumped and primed and ready to rock and roll – let the party begin! When the juices are flowing, it’s hard to sit and wait, especially when the anticipated moment of arrival is left unspecified.
In our observance of Advent, for example, when we focus on the birth of Jesus, we know from the start that the climax will come on December 25th. Between now and then, we’ll read the prophecies of the Old Testament and light a new candle each Sunday; then we’ll gather on Christmas Eve to hear the Christmas story and sing the carols; then we’ll get up on Christmas morning and open our gifts. It’s all so predictable.
Not so with the Second Coming. Jesus could come at any time. He could arrive at this very moment, or he could be delayed for several millennia. There’s just no telling. As he told his disciples,
“But no one knows of that day and hour,
not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
That makes the waiting doubly hard, and it can lead us to ask, “Is he coming, or not?”
The answer lies in the gospel reading for this morning: “Yes, he’s coming … at a moment when you least expect him.” So, look for the sign of Noah. That’s your cue to knowing that the end is near and that our honored guest is at the door.
What, exactly, is the sign of Noah? It may not be what you think. In the Old Testament, the story of Noah and the great flood was brought on by the sinfulness of the world. Genesis 6:5 says,
“Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,
and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart
was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
The picture that comes to mind is that of wholesale immorality, lewdness, debauchery, hedonism and Bacchanalianism to the max.
So, you might think that the sign of Noah has to do with the decadence of the world around us and its preoccupation with sex and violence and every form of lewd behavior – that if the world is truly going to hell in a hand basket, it’d be a sure sign that the Second Coming is near.
But no, that’s not what Jesus said. He said,
“For as in those days which were before the flood
they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,
until the day that Noah entered into the ship…” (Matthew 24:38)
As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s not the people’s sinfulness that’s the problem, it’s their complacency, their relative ease and comfort. Commentator Richard Donovan writes,
“Jesus compares the normalcy of their daily lives with the normalcy that will prevail before the Second Coming. Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage! Who can fault that! The fault is not that people are doing these things, but that they are so caught up in the routine of daily living that they take no thought for their spiritual lives. Their problem is not ‘gross sin’ but ‘secular indifference’ – ‘nonchalance about God.'”(Bruner, 881). (SermonWriter, Nov. 28, 2004, Volume 8, Number 50, ISSN 1071-9962)
No, it’s not the vile nature of the world in which we live that’s the problem, it’s our indifference. We live as if everything is A-OK, when, in reality, the rug can be pulled out from underneath us without a moment’s notice.
• A downturn in the stock market can wipe out a lifetime of savings.
• A positive biopsy can nullify all your plans for the future.
• A rogue terrorist attack can bring our country to its knees.
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We live on thin ice. Why don’t we live as if God were the sole source of our strength and hope for the future?
This is what Noah did. Scripture says, “Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9) He dared to live out of synch with the world around him in order to live in harmony with the Spirit of the living God.
You know the story: While the rest of the world went on living as if they were invulnerable, Noah listened to God and obeyed God’s Word. He built an Ark and gathered a pair of every animal and bird, and then he took the birds and the animals into the Ark, along with his family, and shut the door.
Can’t you just imagine how the people must have talked about him and taunted him and considered him some sort of religious fanatic or fool? To this day, comedians love to make sport of Noah and the Ark.
Yet, who was the wiser? When the first drops of rain began to fall, the people were oblivious to what was about to happen. Only Noah and his family and the birds and animals that were with him would live to tell the story.
This is the sign of Noah: Calamity, disaster, tragedy may well be lurking around the corner. The end could come at any moment. Choose this day to walk with God and not follow the ways of the world. Walk in the path of righteousness and steer clear of the road to perdition.
• Listen to the Psalmist, who says: “Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace, and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:14)
• Let Paul’s words guide you, that “whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
• Hear the words of Jesus, who told his disciples, “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Make no mistake about it: Now is the time to decide, now is the time to embrace Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and walk in his footsteps. Now is the time to prepare for his coming; tomorrow will be too late.
Years ago, I had a family in my congregation that could best be described as an “All-American” family. The husband was a good old boy – a hard worker, a faithful husband, a devoted father. Plus, he was community-minded. He coached a Little League baseball team and was an assistant scout master. His wife was a full-time mom, who devoted her time and energy to being a good wife and mother and community volunteer. She attended PTA meetings, sat in the bleachers in all kinds of weather to root for the kids, win or lose, and could always be counted on for a cake or a pie or a few dozen cookies for the bake sale.
They had two kids – a boy, sixteen, and a girl, ten. The kids were everything the parents had hoped for – they were clean-cut, respectful of their elders, always quick to say, “Yes Ma’am” and “Yes Sir” when addressed.
The family came to church, from time to time, but never made a commitment, either to join the church or to profess Jesus Christ as Lord. They were what you might call, “nominal Christians.” They lived by the Golden Rule and the American Way. For all intents and purposes, they had a secular understanding of life; as such, when tragedy struck, they fell apart.
Here’s what happened: Their son, Tim, wanted to go duck hunting with a friend. He asked his parents and they said, “Sure,” it’d be fine. His father offered to let him take his new shotgun. The boys went to a small lake out in the country, got into a little boat, and were paddling out to a duck blind when the wind came up out of nowhere. The boat capsized. The other boy was able to hang on to the side of the boat; Tim held on to his father’s new shotgun and drowned.
When news reached the family, they turned to the church, and the church members did all they could to offer comfort and reassurance and hope; but it was too little, too late. Without the strength of an inner, seasoned faith, they were hopelessly ill-prepared to face such a loss. The wife became emotionally distraught, and the husband became angry and bitter – mad at God and the world. The last I heard, they were still stuck in their grief.
Disaster strikes without warning, and the word to the wise is this: Be prepared. Get your priorities straight now, while there’s time. Cultivate your relationship with Jesus Christ through daily prayer and Bible study and righteous living. Be like an athlete in training, ready to go into the game on a moment’s notice when the coach calls your number.
Remember the sign of Noah – that, just when everything seems to be going your way, there may well come a clap of thunder and then a flood; so that, by the time you feel the first drops of rain, it’ll be too late.
Let’s end on a positive note. This is the Good News I hope you’ll take home with you this morning and carry with you throughout the season of Advent:
The stronger your faith, the more firmly you’re grounded in the sovereignty of God’s Word,
the more you’re on “good speaking terms with the Lord,” as an old friend used to say;
the more patiently you’ll be able to wait on the Lord to come,
the more likely you’ll recognize signs of his coming,
the more you’ll feel the peace of his presence;
so that, instead of saying, “Is he coming, or not?”
you’ll be able to say to yourself,
“Praise God! He is here!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.