Scripture | Isaiah 65:17-25 | Revelation 21:1-5a
We’re focusing worship in Advent on waiting. That’s what Advent is, a season of waiting. The big question is, what are we waiting for? You could say the answer is obvious: we’re waiting for Christmas, for Christ to be born. But unless I missed something, he’s already been born, right? I mean, we’re not really waiting for baby Jesus – that happened 2000 years ago. So if that already happened, and we’re waiting for something, what is it? I mean, I know we’re waiting for Christmas presents and Santa – at least I am - but is there anything more to it than that?
What if we were waiting for something much bigger? What if that’s what Advent’s about?
What if we were waiting for the end of the story?
What the Bible is, is a story. I didn’t realize that until I took a class in college called “Bible as Literature.” I knew the stories of the Bible – I grew up going to Sunday School, so I knew about David and Moses and Saul and Paul and Jonah and Judas and Abraham and Jesus. I just didn’t realize there was a story, a narrative that flowed from the beginning to end.
Scripture tells a story that begins with creation and ends with a new creation. Paradise is created, the lost, then restored. Sin enters the world, but in the end, sin is defeated. People are separated from God, but in the end, we live with God forever. Death and sorrow and tears rule the world; but in the end, “no more shall sin or sorrows grow”; for God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more.
As Christians, we live inside that story. That’s the story we inhabit. God has written the plot, and we know where it’s going already. He told us.
Think of it like a movie. There are basically two kinds of movies, right? One is the kind where you don’t know the ending, and the other is the kind where you do. When you don’t know the ending, the story unfolds with nail-biters and cliff-hangers until the climactic end. That’s the kind where every review has spoiler-alerts because you don’t want to know too much. You want to be held in suspense.
But there’s another kind of movie, the kind where you know the ending before the movie even starts. There’s still a climactic ending, but you already know what it is. Think “Titanic” or “Scully” or “Apollo 13.” There are no spoilers – you know where it’s headed. It’s the characters and their courage that draw you in. All the tension has to do with how people react to the challenges they face.
As Christians, we live in that second kind of story. We know how it ends. We know where it’s going. And it’s beautiful.
I have often thought that the story we tell makes no sense at all without this ending. We tell the story of Jesus being born to save us. We tell the story of his life and his death and resurrection. We tell the story of the good news of the Gospel… but how exactly is it good news unless there’s an ending like this one?
I served as an Associate Pastor for thirteen years in my first call to ministry. Every year, I preached on the Sundays after Christmas and Easter. Every year. The church calls them “Low Sundays” – but I’m not sure if that’s about attendance at worship, or if it’s the mood of the day. Nothing can match the high of Christmas Eve or Easter and there’s no use trying. The church called them “Low Sunday,” but my friends and I used to call them “Associate Pastor Sunday.”
But then I started calling them a different name. I started calling them “So What? Sundays.” Because that’s the question I had to grapple with every time.
So what that Jesus was born? What’s any different about this world? There’s still sin and evil. How is my life any different after Christmas than before? I still have the same old problems, and now they’re all the more poignant because I was supposed to be joyful.
And so what that he rose from the dead? People still die, and losing them still breaks our hearts. You can talk all you want about heaven, but what it supposed to mean that Jesus “conquered death”? Can you explain that to me, please?
What do you say the week after the high and the hoopla?
It only makes sense if there’s an end to the story. The ending we heard in our scripture this morning.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Jesus has already come, but what he started is not yet complete.
Jesus conquered sin and death. But his victory is not yet fulfilled.
Jesus came to redeem creation. But we live in a broken, fragile world, not yet the way God intends it.
What we’re waiting for in Advent? It’s the “not yet”…
For the PRISM discussion this morning John Weigand included a reading from one of Rob Bell’s sermons on Advent. What he said was this:
[Advent is] about longing, desire, that which is yet to come. That which isn’t here yet. And so we wait, expectantly. Together. With an ache. Because all is not right. Something is missing…
“The not yet will be worth it,” Advent whispers in the dark. [i]
It’s that ache we need to pay attention to We ache for the end of the story.
When I was growing up we never talked about the end of the story. Ever. I mean, the ending is known as the Second Coming of Christ. That’s something the Holy Roller Baptists used to talk about, not normal Presbyterians. That was crazy-talk. I mean, it’s one thing to talk about the Son of God being born in a stable, but the second coming of Christ? Come on.
You know what I remember about growing up? What we were waiting for was nuclear war. At least that’s how I remember it. Duck and cover drills. The Cuban missile crisis. The famous commercial with the little girl walking in a field of daisies and it all blows up in a mushroom cloud. That was how I thought the world would end. Jesus had nothing to do with it.
I don’t hear much about those fears any more, but that doesn’t mean fear has gone away. Now it’s climate change disaster people are worried about. At least that’s what’s on my radar; and my millennial friends tell me the same. Either way, the end of the world is caused by human destruction. That’s the real end of the story.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so much young adult fiction these days is apocalyptic. Massive battles of good vs. evil. The unlikely hero who summons all courage and won’t back down from the scourge. The wasteland that must be inhabited somehow because everything else is wiped out. It’s scary, terrifying stuff. That’s the ending we’re waiting for, right?
But what if it isn’t? What if there is a “not yet”?
What story are we living inside of?
Now, here’s the mistake I think we’ve made all along, the theological mistake. I think we’ve missed the point that we’re living inside of a story. We’ve acted as if scientific fact and narrative truth are the same thing, and they’re not. We’ve made them do battle with each other, as if you have to choose one or the other, like being a Creationist or an Evolutionist. But what if the creation story were the narrative truth, and evolution were the scientific fact?
We can’t ignore facts; we’re in perilous danger if we do. But the story of scripture is not about facts like science understands them. It’s about the ache that we feel. We are aching toward the end of the story.
We need to pay attention to that ache…
“The not yet will be worth it,” Advent whispers in the dark.
Imagine, just for a minute, that you live inside a narrative about good and evil, about light and darkness, about life and death and hope and despair and sin and redemption. You are in the middle of that story, and you are longing for it to end well. You are reaching for it… you are living for it… you are dying for it….
The question isn’t, “Is the story true”? The question is, “Who are you in that story?” Can you live with the kind of courage and determination that heroes need?
John Glenn died this week. He was a hero… He was also a devoted Christian, a Presbyterian, an elder in his church. This was John Glenn’s wisdom:
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.
What is the something bigger and more profound that you’re living for? What kind of character will you be? What ending are you devoted to?
Be part of God’s story. Live inside it. Work for it with a hero’s devotion.
As Rob Bell describes it, Advent is “a season of waiting, expecting, longing. [The] Spirit meets us in the ache…. We turn our hearts in the direction of that day…”
Let your heart ache.
[i] Rob Bell, “Why Should We Care About Advent?” Relevant Magazine, November 29, 2010, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/23640-why-advent