By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Given all the other readings, activities and special music in the service today, plus the Sacrament of Holy Communion to come in just a few minutes, I’ll make this brief.
I love the service of the hanging of the greens. What a nice way to kick off the Advent season. What a great way to get into the Christmas spirit.
But let’s make no mistake about it: There’s more to the hanging of the greens than decorating the sanctuary. What we’re about is nothing less than preparing for the coming of the Lord.
Company’s coming! That’s the word for the day. And what do you do when company’s coming – especially if it’s somebody really important? You pull out all the stops. You get out your best dishes, polish the silverware and roll out the red carpet. We all do it. It’s our way of honoring special guests, and who could be more special than Jesus?
I drove down to Bryan last week to celebrate Thanksgiving with my friend, Kathy Jones, and her family. You should’ve seen the house! It was unbelievable. She had all of her Christmas decorations out. There were lights and garlands everywhere. And the table – oh, my gosh. It looked like something out of Better Homes and Gardens. She left no stone unturned. Plus, in addition to turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, she’d baked the kids’ favorite cookies and had little favors for everyone. How could you not feel welcomed and honored to be there?
Well, that’s what we’re about today – getting our house in order, making it look like a place fit for a king, because – well, that’s who’s coming – Jesus Christ, who, in the words of a Christmas carol was “born a child and yet a king.”
But did you listen carefully to the gospel reading just now? It didn’t say a word about the birth of Jesus. Why is that? It’s because Advent is a time when we not only focus on Jesus’ coming as a baby born in Bethlehem – his first coming, if you will – it’s a time when we focus on his second coming as king of kings and Lord of Lords.
To be honest, Presbyterians haven’t talked a lot about the Second Coming. And that’s too bad, because it’s just as much part of the gospel as Jesus’ birth. In fact, the gospel story isn’t complete until you sing all three verses: Past, present and future tense. In the words of the Communion liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Or, as we read in the Book of Revelation:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God,
“who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8)
Faith in Jesus Christ is a historic fact, a present-day reality and a future hope. We celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we affirm the presence of the living Christ in the form of the Holy Spirit, and we believe that, just as Christ was with God in the beginning, so Christ will stand with God at the end of time to reign over all creation.
So, on this first Sunday of Advent we hear the prophecy of the Second Coming in his own words, as Jesus told his disciples,
“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars;
and on the earth anxiety of nations,
in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the waves;
men fainting for fear,
and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world:
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud
with power and great glory.
But when these things begin to happen,
look up, and lift up your heads,
because your redemption is near.”
A few years ago, the church I was serving was asked to share its facilities with a Seventh Day Adventist congregation. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do – we were strapped for cash, and they were will to pay their part; besides, they wanted to use the church on Saturday, which was a day when we hardly ever had anything going on. The Session agreed, and a deal was struck.
At first, it worked pretty well. We were barely aware of each other. Then Adventists asked to schedule a week-long seminar consisting of lectures and films on the 2nd coming of Christ. Reluctantly, the Session agreed. But when leaflets began surfacing around the neighborhood with colorful images of cosmic battles and satanic figures and with provocative questions like, “Are you willing to let your children bear the mark of the beast?” we began to squirm.
All this emphasis on the end of time and the final advent of our Lord was more than we could take. So, when the week ended and the world didn’t come to an end, the Session asked the Seventh Day Adventists to find another place to meet. As it turned out, they’d already made up their minds to go somewhere else. As the preacher told me, “It’s hard to make a case for the future when you folks are so comfortable with the present!”
So, how do we understand the 2nd Coming? Basically, in two ways:
• First, there’ll come a day when Jesus will reveal himself fully and reign as the sovereign Lord of all creation. No one knows when that will be. As Jesus said, “But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Mt. 24:36) In the meantime, it’s up to us to be prepared and live each day in such a way that, when he appears, he’ll recognize us as his own and welcome us into his kingdom.
• In the meantime, that doesn’t mean Jesus can’t be a part of our everyday lives. And that’s the second part: Jesus comes when we least expect him – in the guise of strangers, the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, old people, children, people who are mentally and physically challenged. You never know when or where Jesus might appear. In this sense, he comes not once or twice, but over and over, and our job is to recognize him and greet him as a welcomed guest.
In a word, we believe Jesus is Lord both now and at the 2nd coming. No one knew this better than Isaac Watts, who wrote:
“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does his successive journeys run;
his kingdom’s spread from shore to shore,
‘til moons shall wax and wane no more.”
And so, what we’re about today is getting ready. Company’s coming. And the Good News is as we prepare to welcome him into our hearts, our lives, our church and our homes, we awaken to the fact that he’s already here to enjoy all the fuss we’re making over him and bless us with the gifts of his peace, hope and love.
Thanks be to God, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006 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.