A fortnight ago I preached on Mark 13:1-8 and said that despite certain appearances that chapter wasn’t about the Second Coming. Today, Advent Sunday, we start a new year in the Lectionary and we switch our main Gospel readings from Mark to Luke. The Luke reading set for today is the end of his equivalent chapter to Mark 13, and I would still contend that – despite appearances – it is more to do with the fall of Jerusalem to Rome than it is with the Second Coming.
Yet the Second Coming is a traditional theme for Advent Sunday. As we enter the season where we prepare to mark Jesus’ first coming, we also look forward to his appearing again – this time, in glory.
It was in remembering that emphasis for Advent Sunday that I decided instead to preach from today’s Lectionary epistle in 1 Thessalonians. There is no doubt that both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have plenty of sane things to say to Christians about the return of Christ, and so I want to take verse 13 from our reading as a text this morning to explore this theme.
Let’s read it again:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Firstly, let us think about Paul’s statement that Jesus is coming. We have to get beyond some of the silliness around the doctrine of the Second Coming in order to see that actually this is a wonderful and beautiful truth. We shouldn’t be distracted by the lurid interpretations of this. We should pay no attention to those who claim to have made elaborate deductions from Scripture about the relevance of present-day events to a heavenly timetable for Christ’s return. We should ignore those who use this doctrine as a way of scaring people. And I know that last one, having been subjected as a teenager to an American film called A Thief In The Night, which basically tried to frighten young people into following Jesus. It gave the members of some youth groups who watched it nightmares for years afterwards. Its effect was more like a religious horror film than an instrument for the Gospel.
But just because the fruitcake brigade exists doesn’t mean that sane interpretations don’t also exist. To believe in Christ’s return is to have real hope for our lives and for all creation. It is like the mirror image of Christmas. For just as his incarnation was announced by angels, so here Paul envisages his return, flanked by the entire army of angels. Paul refers to ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’, where ‘saints’ is literally ‘holy ones’ and in this case that probably means angels, not Christians. Jesus is coming back to wrap up what he began. Like Magnus Magnusson or John Humphrys on Mastermind, he is saying, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”
To put it another way, let us remember how Jesus came, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, and indeed had come. The evidence was seen in the healing of the sick, the release of the demonised and the preaching of the good news to the poor.
But it didn’t all come. Evil resisted Jesus, and still does. We do not live in a society where sickness, death and injustice have been conquered. We await that day. In other words, the kingdom of God has come, but not fully. In the words of some, it is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. When Jesus comes again, it is, as I said, to finish what he started. It was promised in the ministry of Jesus. It was guaranteed in his resurrection.
How does this affect us now, as we continue to live in a world where we are surrounded by suffering? One answer is that it fortifies us with hope. Other people are driven to despair, but we who live in the light of the resurrection and the hope of the Second Coming know that God will one day make all things new. He will banish all tears and pain.
I am fond at this time of year of telling a story about Tony Campolo, the American preacher, social activist and sociologist. He tells of how someone asked him how come he wasn’t despondent when faced with all the pain and wickedness of the world. He replied, “I’ve got the book and I’ve taken a peek at the final page, so I know the ending: Jesus wins!”
On Advent Sunday, we are the people who believe that Jesus wins, and we, too, are strengthened with that hope as we too live for him in a world that is often otherwise grim.
Secondly, we need to think about a fitting response to the news that Jesus is coming back to complete the coming of his kingdom. How might we be in harmony with God’s kingdom, fully come? Paul certainly anticipates something like that when he talks of us being ‘blameless’ when Jesus comes again with the angels.
What would it mean to be blameless before God? Well, this too is a matter of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom. There is a sense in which we are already blameless, and a way in which we are not yet blameless. What do I mean?
We are already blameless in that we are forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, we are proclaimed ‘not guilty’ before God and the Great Judge has ‘justified’ us – he has declared us to be ‘in the right’ before him. As the Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ Not only have we been pardoned from all our sins, the record is wiped clean. There is nothing left on our record before God. All has been dealt with at the Cross. ‘He remembers our sins no more.’ That much is our ‘already.’ This is what we already have.
But to hear the word ‘blameless’ is to feel the force of the ‘not yet’ as well. We are not yet fully blameless in the way we conduct our lives. Forgiven and justified we may be, but we do not live in perfect harmony with the will of God. Sometimes we are only too conscious of the ways in which we continue to fail God and disappoint Jesus. We have a long way to go to become blameless in our everyday lives.
Yet what would be more fitting and appropriate in the kingdom of God but to be utterly blameless? If Christ returns to make all things new, to make a new creation where not only is there no more sickness and pain, there is also no more sin and evil, then how would we fit in if we continue to be sinners? Does it not follow, then, that although God has already declared us blameless in his sight, he also wants to make us blameless in practice?
It therefore becomes our aspiration, as Paul says here, to seek greater holiness in our lives. Just because we have been forgiven we cannot sit back and say, “I’m OK, I have my ticket for heaven.” Rather, if we know we have been forgiven by such love and at such cost to Jesus, our response will surely want to be one of gratitude. What can I do to please such a Saviour? What can I do to demonstrate my thankfulness for receiving such a priceless gift? We shall never want to settle for some idea that we have already arrived in the Christian life. There is no room for complacency in the life of the disciple. Disciples are always learning, and not simply learning religious facts. Disciples are learning more how to live after the pattern of their Teacher, Jesus.
The story is told of a little girl who saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Grandma, why are you still reading the Bible at your age?” asked the girl. “Surely you’ve read it all by now. Why do you keep doing it?”
Because I’m studying for my finals,” replied grandma.
This leads us to the third and final theme this morning. How can we achieve such blamelessness? Surely it’s beyond us.
Paul knows that, and he doesn’t expect us to manage it ourselves. Remember how the verse began:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless … (emphasis mine)
The third theme is that God makes us ready for his kingdom.
Let me tell you a pretty open secret. You may disagree with me, but one Christmas carol I truly dislike is ‘Away in a manger.’ It’s that silly line, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’, that always gets to me. If Jesus were fully human, he would have cried! It ranks alongside ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’ from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ – words clearly written by someone who had never attended the birth of a child.
But how does ‘Away in a manger’ end? ‘And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.’ Now while I would still like to finesse that line a little too, because technically in the New Testament heaven is where we go between our death and our resurrection, but after our resurrection we live in God’s new creation, but nevertheless I like the thought that God fits us for eternity. ‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness’ indeed.
If God strengthens us, then that usually indicates the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God. Jesus is coming again and will make all things new. We need to be ready for that, yet we are unable to be. But just as God has provided for our forgiveness, so he has also provided for our holiness. When we respond to the grace and mercy he lovingly offers us in Christ and we find redemption, he then grants us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he can begin his work of fitting us for eternity. The power of God is available to us.
This doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight. Experience tells us that. But let us dwell on that image of being ‘fitted’ for eternity, and let that inform Paul’s teaching that God strengthens us in holiness. Think of someone who goes for a fitting for some clothes – perhaps a bride for her wedding dress. It takes a number of sessions over a period of months. A design is chosen. The bride is measured. She goes back a while later and the measurements have to be retaken, because she is making an effort to lose weight, ready for her wedding day. The dressmaker makes some adjustments, and notes what needs to be changed. And so it goes on, until the great day when the bride walks down the aisle, and stuns everyone with her beauty.
I think that what God does in strengthening us in holiness is a little like that. It is a process over a long time. It involves adjustments and changes. Eventually, one day, we – not as individuals but corporately as part of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ – will walk down the aisle for the marriage to Jesus the Bridegroom, and we shall stun people with our beauty – the beauty of holiness, as the hymn writer put it.
And let us remember also that the fact that God strengthens us in holiness does not absolve us from personal responsibility. We do not sit back and let God take the strain while we have an easy, quiet existence. Oh no. We need to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. The dressmaker would not be able to make the bride look beautiful unless that young woman co-operated with her work. We need to be open to the Holy Spirit, not closed.
This, then, describes some of the Advent hope. Jesus is coming again. He will finish what he started, by making all things new. It is only fitting that we seek holy lives in accordance with his kingdom purposes. However, we cannot do that on our own. Thankfully, God steps in with his Holy Spirit to strengthen us and fit us for eternity.
Our Advent calling, then, is to co-operate with the Spirit’s work in our lives. The same Spirit who brought Jesus into the world is available to us, so that we might live to please the One who came and who is coming.