The Spirit of Advent Past, Present and Future

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Thus says Mr. Scrooge after his Christmas Eve visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Similarly, the season of Advent offers us three spiritual encounters in the weeks that lead up to Christmas.

The Spirit of Advent Past

In ages past, the people of Israel looked for the full flowering of God’s reign on earth. Thus, our reading for the first Sunday in Advent comes from the prophet Isaiah reads:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! Isaiah 2:1-5

What a wonderful hope!

Isaiah’s vision of a just and peaceful future for the entire world was built on the promise God gave to the patriarchs, developed through Moses and fleshed out in the age of kings, priests and prophets. Jacob. Jerusalem. The Lord’s house. The Lord’s word. Instruction. Judgment. Isaiah’s vision is filled with the language of covenantal history. It looks for the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham, that all the nations of the world would be blessed through him.

For Isaiah, the days to come are a distant dream. The kingdom of Israel is insignificant when compared to its larger and more powerful neighbors. The people of Israel themselves were not living in accordance with the word of the Lord. In addition to prophesying a glorious future for Jerusalem, the prophet also denounced Israel’s sins and predicted its coming judgment. For most of its history, Israel remained a partly unfulfilled promise of greater things to come.  As the cliché goes, “He didn’t live up to his potential.”

During this season of Advent, we remember how God’s faithful people longed for the promised days to come, but we don’t do so in ignorance of how the story worked out. God’s faithful servants longed for his coming, and he came in Christ Jesus.  Jesus “fills up” the story of Israel. It all leads to him, and we are all beneficiaries of his saving power.

The house of the Lord where holy offerings are lifted up, the word of the Lord which guides men and women in right paths, the judgments of the Lord which establish justice and peace: they are all vested in one man, Jesus, the Messiah.

When he is lifted up, he draws all men and women to himself.  And because of what he did – his life, death and resurrection – we are the people of the nations whom Isaiah envisioned streaming to the throne of God. Because of Jesus, we have gone up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.

The Spirit of Advent Future

BUT … still we wait.

Jesus the messiah was born in accordance with the promises of God. He exercised God’s kingdom power as he healed the sick, cast out evil, calmed the storms, fed the hungry, raised the dead, created banquets for the hungry and thirsty, and reconciled the penitent sinners to God. And yet sin, sickness, sadness, evil, misfortune and death continue to exist in this world. Jesus died and rose again on our behalf, but the world is still characterized more by the cross than the empty tomb. We wait for his glorious return to make all things new.

Every Sunday, we confess “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” We confess that we believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”  Like our brothers and sisters of old, we, too, look for the final redemption of God’s people in the age to come.

The prophet of the book of Revelation declared

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:1-5

We know the “who” of our deliverance; we just don’t know the “when.”  In our Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent, Jesus says:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. . . .  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour .Matthew 24:36-39, 42-44

For the New Testament authors, the hope of the king’s return meant that Christians should live kingdom lives. We should live like we are in fact citizens of the kingdom of God.

In our epistle reading for this morning, the Apostle Paul wrote:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Romans 13:11-14

During Advent, then, let us hold fast to the promise of Christ’s coming in faithful obedience, for when he appears our salvation will be complete.

The Spirit of Advent Present

As Isaac Watts wrote, “Joy to the world. The Lord is come.” He came two thousand years ago in fulfillment of the age-old hope of God’s chosen people. And, he will come again at the end of the age to crush the power of sin, death and evil of every sort. But there is another way that Jesus comes; he comes today to those who will receive him in faith.

At some point this Christmas, we will sing Phillips Brooks’ great Christmas hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem. Brooks leads us beyond Bethlehem into the lives of all who believe.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us Our Lord Emmanuel

Sallman_Christ_KnockingIn the church in which I grew up, every Sunday I walked past Warner Sallman’s famous picture of Christ knocking on the door of the heart. The painting is based on Jesus’ promise in Revelation 3:20.

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

The painting reminded us that the Lord of all creation who came to earth 2000 years ago – who walked the shores of Galilee and ate with sinners and cast out demons – and who will come again at the end of the age – is ready to come to each one of us – right now – today.

Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20, however, make me ask the question, “How would early Christians have understood Jesus’ promise to come in and eat with them?” It might help if you knew that as far back as we have any kind of written record, the early church participated in communion every week. I’m pretty sure that they would have thought of the Lord’s Supper as they heard Jesus’ promise read to them in their assembly.

In a few moments, we will share the table of the Lord. Holy Communion is not the only way that Jesus comes to us today, but it is certainly one way. When we eat and drink with Jesus, we are eating and drinking with the one who gave his body and blood for our salvation, and we are eating and drinking with the one who will come again to make all things new.

Communion remembers that Jesus came. The very elements of bread and wine remind us that Jesus came to save us and give his life for us.

And communion anticipates that Jesus will return. The Apostle Paul said, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) At the table with his disciples, Jesus himself said, “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29) The communion table not only looks back to Jesus’ first coming, it looks forward to Jesus’ second coming.

And communion also celebrates Jesus presence in our lives right now with those who receive him in faith. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, the Apostle Paul calls the cup of thanksgiving a participation in the blood of Christ and the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ. The word that is usually translated “participation” is koinonia, which is also translated as “communion” or “fellowship.” It does not mean mere formal membership. Rather, it points us to a living relationship.

Jesus comes to us at the table and he gives us himself. Jesus promised his disciples, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)  The bread that we eat and the cup that we drink are a foretaste of that great heavenly banquet in the coming age of righteousness. The table is a sneak preview of heaven.

During Advent, let us remember that Jesus comes to each of us personally and individually and he invites us to turn our lives over to him moment by moment, day by day, year by year. Sharing the Lord’s table, then, is the perfect way for us to begin our Advent celebration.

Jesus in Advent – Past, Present and Future

Jesus came to fulfill God’s ancient promises, and for that we give thanks.

Jesus will come again to make all things new, and for that day we wait in resolute hope and faithful obedience.

And Jesus comes to us today. He comes to the door and knocks, and he promises that if we open the door he will come in and share our table.

You can ask yourself how you would have reacted if you had met him in the stables of Bethlehem or on the streets of Galilee or in the temple courts of Jerusalem, but the past is beyond our reach, except in our memories and imagination.

You can think about his coming again, but again, the future is not ours except in our anticipation of it.

But when Jesus comes and knocks on the door, there is no getting around it. You either answer the knock or you don’t.

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

Knock. . . Knock. . . Knock.

I think that’s for you.