“Things Are Not Always as They Appear”

Isaiah 42:5-9

Luke 21:25-36

November 30, 2003

 

Things are not always as they appear.  Well, if that isn’t an understatement, I don’t know what is.  This is one of those lessons you can only learn from life experiences, usually learned by guessing wrongly about something.  All of us have had to learn, usually the hard way, that we shouldn’t assume anything.  After all, we know what “assume” means, don’t we?  Then there is the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” 

Just because something looks one way, doesn’t mean that it is that way.  Just because we have a hot, dry summer, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sign that we are going to have a mild winter.  Just because a movie preview looks good, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sign that movie is.  Who would have thought that a humble, old man who drove an old, beat up, pick-up truck would actually be Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart.  Looks can be deceiving.  Things are not always as they appear to be.  Certainly, the season of Advent falls into this category.

After all, it would appear that Advent is supposed to be the time during which we await Christmas, the four Sundays before Christmas when we light the advent candles, sing Christmas songs, decorate our homes, and count the number of shopping days until Christmas, not to mention prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, or is it Santa Claus, on Christmas morning. 

Sure Advent certainly comes before Christmas, and it is certainly a time when we begin to prepare ourselves and celebrate the coming of the babe in the manger who is Christ the Lord, but Advent is one of those church seasons that is not what it appears to be, even though everything we see during the season of Advent points to something else.

It’s hard not to get caught up in what Advent appears to be.  For us this year, it started back in October, even before Halloween, when store shelves began to transform themselves into Christmas displays as if on some evolutionary economic timetable.  In the blink of an eye, stores morphed themselves from Halloween into Christmas with no inclination that it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet!  Of course, my favorite are the store flyers we get in the mail.  You know the ones that advertise the “One Day Christmas Sale” that takes place before Christmas and lasts a week.  I’m sure glad we have the stores and the media to give us the signs that Christmas is coming, because if I didn’t know that there are only 25 days…oops, make that 24 days, 12 hours, and some-odd minutes…left until Christmas, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. 

          Okay, so I would hope that all of us would know that Advent isn’t about the countdown of the number of shopping days until Christmas.  We have already heard during the lighting of the Advent candle that Advent means coming, but Advent is not about the coming that we are used to thinking about during this season.

I’m sure it surprised many of you that we would read a text such as this one.  You probably expected some other text to be read especially since it is the season of Advent, and now to hear a text about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, may stir up feelings of awkwardness and confusion, if not a sense of anxiety. 

In this time of Advent/Christmas, filled with its “good tidings of great joy” and “peace on earth goodwill to all,” a text like this about the earth in distress, nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting from fear and foreboding about what is coming upon the world, and powers of the heaven and the earth being shaken, might leave us to wonder what in the world is going on, which is exactly the point Luke is making.   

          For Luke, there is a dramatic reversal that has taken place in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  The world’s ways have been dramatically and radically reversed by the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  “Looks can be deceiving,” Luke wants to say, “things are not always as they appear to be.”  The last may appear to be the last in the world, but they are the first in God’s kingdom.  The ones, who appear to be poor in the world, are rich in God’s kingdom.  The ones, who appear to be the most wealthy and righteous in the world, are the ones who will find it the hardest to enter the kingdom of God. 

What appears to be dreadful news is in fact the great reversal of the good news of the Gospel.  What appears to be the end filled with destruction and death, fear and foreboding, the shaking of the heavens and earth, is in fact God’s new beginning, the beginning of new things, a new heaven and earth, a new creation.  “Don’t get caught up in the signs going on in the world, don’t get caught up at the things as they appear to be, or you will miss the bigger picture of what is actually going on.  Stand up”, Jesus says, “for your redemption is drawing near.” 

          In this time of Advent, we are certainly preparing to celebrate Christ's coming in history, when God's reign broke into our world in the person of the Son of Man that night long ago in the baby born in Bethlehem.

But more importantly, Advent is about anticipating Christ's final coming, its about the promise spoken about in Isaiah when God says, “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”  It’s about the time when the One, who came from the branch of David, will execute justice and righteousness in the land bringing God's reign in its final fullness.  It’s about the time Jesus speaks about in the gospel lesson today when all will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory in final and total victory. 

It is our conviction as Christians that history is going somewhere, and that somewhere is to the Day of the Lord.  History may appear to repeat itself with its earthquakes and fires, its wars and destruction, its fear and death, but in reality it is heading toward a goal, a final moment, a new beginning when Christ will come again, when Christ will be Lord of all.

Like the fig tree and all the trees that appear to be dead and useless during the winter, with their gnarled and crooked branches stretched out like skeletal fingers, they are in fact waiting for the coming of the spring, when new life will sprout up from their branches, so too will the heavens and the earth appear to go through its death pains, but it will not be the end, for where death seeemed to be the only certainty, the Son of Man will bring new life like the coming spring. 

          This is what we are preparing ourselves for during the season of Advent, which is why everyday should be for us the last day, because God is at work even now to bring about a new beginning – the day of redemption, the day of amazing grace.  We must never think that we are living in settled times as we wait for God to finally decide to intervene again in human history, but rather we must always live in the shadow of eternity, always remaining in a permanent state of watchful expectation, always readying ourselves to stand before the Son of man. 

In the birth of a helpless baby all those years ago, the powers of the universe found their days to be numbered, for the day of the Lord is already moving toward us, and with each second that passes we find ourselves closer and closer to time of his return, when nothing will ever be the same again.

In this Advent season, let us stand up and raise our heads, for the hope we have in Jesus Christ, because things are not always as they appear.  Christ is coming again.  Our redemption is drawing near.  Amen.