We pray for the coming of Jesus into our lives and the world, and in the love of Jesus we are re-made for lives of grace and service, alert not only to Jesus’ coming but also to the needs we are sent to serve.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, First Sunday of Advent, year C; texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“O come, O come, Emmanuel.” So we pray each Advent, so we sing today. “Come, God-with-us. Come and save us.” We pray that prayer a lot in our Advent worship. Hymn after hymn invites the coming of Christ into the world, into our lives. The Prayers of the Day each week invite our Lord to be stirred up and to come and be with us. Our readings for each of these four weeks all speak of the coming of Jesus in one way or another. And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” “O come, O come, Emmanuel. God-with-us.”
We should be careful what we pray for. We just might get it.
Emmanuel is a name which means “God-with-us.” This is a name Matthew tells us Jesus will receive. But in Matthew’s Gospel that promise, that Jesus is God-with-us, isn’t really fulfilled until the ascension, after Jesus has risen from the dead. Then he says, “Look, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s a wonderful promise. And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” “O come, O come, Emmanuel. God-with-us.”
We should be careful what we pray for. We just might get it.
Because we might not really be thinking about what is promised in the coming of Jesus, God-with-us, into the world. Jeremiah speaks of the righteous Branch coming to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” That sounds like a really good thing. Unless you’re the one implicit in the injustice, the one who’s not working for righteousness. Jesus gives warnings in today’s reading from Luke, warnings of what will happen at the time of his return. The coming of the Son of Man will result in the end of time, the end of all things, unexpectedly springing forth, like a trap. He calls us, his followers, to be alert and always ready for his coming. And so now, do we want to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus”? “O come, O come, Emmanuel”?
We should be careful what we pray for, after all. We just might get it.
Advent’s a funny season.
It’s become a season with fewer fans among Lutheran congregations these days. Many churches take all of December to celebrate Christmas, trying to go along with the cultural beat in the society and in the stores. There are pastors who argue for moving Advent to November and just realizing that saving Christmas music until December 24 isn’t working in the world.
But that belies an odd understanding, a limited view of what Advent truly is as a season. The point of Advent is not just preparing for our Christmas song and celebration, and the music and readings of Advent certainly are very different from that focus.
The gift of actually celebrating Advent as we do here and as the Church has long done is that we are able to hear things we normally wouldn’t, and we are given the opportunity to see the fullness of what this season proclaims. And it’s a little frightening, to tell the truth.
It is true that in part the coming we think we’re praying for and singing about is our yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus. Advent helps us prepare for our Christmas celebration.
But it has been so much more for the Church in the hundreds of years it’s been observed. Advent is really about three preparations: preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God in the world. And preparing for the coming of our Lord at the end of time. And as important, preparing for the coming of our Lord into our hearts and lives right now.
Those who would treat these four weeks as simply a warm-up to the Christmas celebration avoid the really terrifying thing about Advent. The part we may seem to want to avoid: that we believe, and Advent reminds, that our Lord, having come and lived and died and risen from death, will come again. And the other part we may seem to want to avoid: that we believe, and Advent reminds, that the same crucified and risen Lord has promised to come and be with us now.
These two comings are inextricably linked. And they have serious implications for our lives. We should be careful what we pray for. We just might get it.
It’s possible that most of us don’t really want what we sing and pray for each Advent to really happen. And it’s not just because we’re frightened about judgment when Jesus returns, though we certainly can be a little wary of that.
It’s more because if we look at what these readings and hymns and prayers are all saying, it is that when the Triune God comes to be with us, we change. The world changes. Our hearts change. Our lives change. If we just take December to sing our Christmas song we’ll be prepared for our Christmas celebration, if a little tired of the music perhaps. But we won’t be prepared for the rest of Jesus’ coming.
These other themes of Advent have always been there, and the idea of Christ Jesus coming into our lives now, and preparing us for his coming at the end of the ages has been seen as a good thing by the Church.
We just don’t often see a lot of modern Christianity really talking about or looking forward to or hoping for changes of any kind associated with the coming of God-with-us. “Come, Lord Jesus, comfort me when I’m blue, when I need you, when I struggle.” That we hear a lot. “Help me when I’m in pain.”
But “Come, Lord, and execute justice and righteousness in the land, as you promised in Jeremiah”? This we don’t hear as often, at least in places like ours where Christians rightly suspect we might be part of the injustice ourselves.
But if we’re afraid of Jesus coming and changing us or the Church, we’re also missing the very center of the joy of the Good News that in Jesus, God is with us.
It is a truth worth noting that if our relationship of faith to the Triune God through the living, risen Lord of life doesn’t affect our hearts and lives enough to radically change us, then it logically doesn’t affect us at all.
In my life the most significant relationships I’ve had or have are the ones with people who deeply affect my heart, my life, my thinking, my reality. People who don’t have an impact on me don’t have an impact on me. It’s very simple.
And so it is with faith in Jesus. If we long for the coming of Jesus into this broken world, the coming of God-with-us to heal the pain that we see and feel, we must recognize that if Jesus is going to do that, things are going to change.
Like an alcoholic who finally has to decide – is the pain of continuing as I am worse than the pain that will come if I try to be healed and find a new way – like that, we each need to decide the same thing.
Is the brokenness and pain of an empty life without God’s daily transforming presence, a life where I search for things that ultimately have no meaning, a life where I focus on myself and perhaps a few close by but not on the good I could do to the world around me, a life where I judge others rather than look into my own heart – is this empty life more painful than the pain and discomfort that will come if God changes my heart and I see things and live things differently?
Are the things I fear to confess to God worth keeping, if the pain they cause and the distance they make between me and God continues, or can I be open to God’s transforming power if the Son of God comes into my heart and life? These are the kinds of questions we have.
If we spend time with our sisters and brothers in faith who have witnessed for 2,000 years to this new life, we would find they would say there’s no other way we’d really want to live, once we know it. Life lived in the love of Jesus, they would say – though often complicated and confusing and difficult – is the only life that truly is life. It’s the secret to the joy of Christian life: life lived in faith, in relationship to the Triune God through our Lord Jesus, is the only life worth living.
I’ve been saying we should be careful what we pray for. But not if we know what we’re asking.
Our psalmist today is truly our guide to such open and willing prayer for such life with God. Like the hymn, “O come, Emmanuel,” the psalmist also asks that God’s ways and paths be shown to us. There is a willingness, a desire for change by God, for direction and guidance. But there’s also a recognition of our fears: while asking for God’s guidance, the psalmist also asks God three things: remember that you are loving and compassionate, O Lord, don’t think of my sins when you remember me, and lastly, think of your love when you remember me.
It is our sinfulness, our lack of justice, our selfish disregard for the wrongs of this world, it is all the things that Jesus will need to forgive, remove, smooth away that give us the most fear. We’re afraid that if Jesus comes, he will see us as unprepared, sinful, unready, unworthy. The psalmist helps us know how to pray with that fear.
And Paul then gives us the answer of almighty God: Jesus will come to us, and yes, change us, but in so doing make us people prepared for his coming at the end of time. The Lord, Paul says, will make us increase and abound in love for one another (inside our community) and for all (to the rest of the world.) And even more, he will strengthen our hearts in holiness, Paul says, so that we in fact are blameless when our Lord returns at the end of time. There will be nothing to fear, for he will make us ready.
And so to that end, with the prayers of the psalmist and Paul in mind, we can now hear Jesus’ encouragement: be alert, and pray. We’re not staying watchful and alert because we’re afraid of punishment if Jesus returns. We’re staying watchful because the world is broken and cracked and in need of God’s healing love. And we want to be ready for our chances to bring that love.
We’re not praying because we selfishly want God to fix all our inconveniences or even all our difficult things. We’re praying “Come, Lord Jesus” because we want to know in our hearts the joy of God’s love that only Jesus can bring – the joy we know in being forgiven, the peace we know in eating at this altar and leaving filled, the grace we know when God’s love calls us. And we pray “Come, Lord Jesus” because we want everyone to know that love.
Like ointment on chapped legs on a below-zero day, God’s healing love stings us as it heals us. It stings like crazy sometimes. But it always heals us. And changed by that love, we become the servants of God Jesus hopes for, the alert, watchful ones, who are looking for any chance we can find to bring that healing love to the brokenness of this world.
And so we do pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
We pray knowing we’re hoping to get what we pray for. Hoping for God to say, “OK, I’m here. I’m going to need to remodel you a little, refit you so you can be a loving, gracefilled representative of mine in the world.” We pray, hoping to hear that, knowing the remodeling might hurt a bit. Maybe a lot. But in the long run, it will make us like Jesus.
And then we become God’s answer ourselves, when others pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” God says: “you go. It’s what I made you for.”
And so we pray. Because, miracle of miracles, God promises to answer our prayer. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, God-with-us. Come, Emmanuel. Come to us and save us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen