This is a version of the sermon preached on December 1, 2019 at BBUMC. It’s the First Lord’s Day of Advent, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. It draws from worship resources for the Advent series, “Are We There Yet?“
Today’s sermon explores Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44.
Having returned from our Thanksgiving travels, one line may still be ringing in our ears: “Are we there yet?” Sometimes the journey can seem unbearably long, and at such times, “Are we there yet?” is more than a question: it’s a pleading for the good news that we’re arriving. I think sometimes it’s also a verbalized plea to “just make this trip end already and get there!”
This Advent, we’re living in the tension of life lived with “Are we there yet?” on our lips and hearts, because in a very real way, we know the answer is, “No, not yet. Keep waiting.” After all, the season of Advent is all about waiting for an arrival, for a coming, as the word advent means – to come. We wait with “Are we there yet?” anticipation to celebrate again that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus to draw all of creation into God’s presence. But we also wait with a pleading, “Are we there yet?” that is really more of a prayer like this: “Come, quickly, Lord Jesus; we’ve been waiting for so long.” This is why our most familiar Advent songs have us sing, “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,” and “O come, O come, Emanuel.” This season, we’ll explore how to live well in the journey of faith as we await the fullness of God’s presence through the scriptures of the Old Testament prophets and the gospels. We believe the Spirit inspired these scriptures so they’d reveal God and God’s ways to us, so let’s pray for the Spirit’s presence.
Holy Spirit, breathe in us and through scripture today, that we might see, know, love, and follow you more faithfully this day as we await Jesus’ coming in glory. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
Imagine that you’re preparing your Thanksgiving feast and gathering. A distant relative has told you that someday she’ll come to visit, but she hasn’t told you when she’s arriving – or even if it will be for the holiday or some other time. Further, you don’t know whether she likes one pillow or two, or what kind of food she likes – if she has any allergies or special requests. Wouldn’t this be nerve-wracking? To a certain extent, this must be something of how Jesus’ disciples were feeling in today’s passage from Matthew.
In the preceding chapter, Jesus has given a “Woe to you!” tongue lashing to the religious leaders of the day – the scribes and Pharisees – in their home court, the Temple. Then, apparently in their presence, he nearly weeps over Jerusalem and the people he’s encountered in his life: “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Mt 23:37, CEB). Then, leaving the temple, Jesus tells his disciples that it will soon be destroyed. And so, when they reach the Mount of Olives, they secretly ask him, “[When] will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3, CEB). It’s like they’re on this journey toward God’s preferred future for the world, which they see in Jesus, and they’re asking, “Are we there yet?”
Our gospel passage today is one of Jesus’s non-answer answers to their question and their longing. He doesn’t give them any specifics. It will be a surprise. It will come when we least expect it, when we’re busy doing life, working, and celebrating. In fact, he tells them that no one, not even he, knows the specifics except God the Father.
Now, when we think about Jesus as the Son, one person of God the Trinity, this secrecy is baffling. But it would have been baffling for the disciples as well, even without the Trinitarian language the church developed over the next few hundred years. But in reading through Matthew 24, I think the vagueness is part of Jesus’s point.
His whole life, inaugurated at his birth we celebrate at Christmas, was about helping people live into God’s presence and way for them in this life, which leads to the life to come. His mission was always about the journey, the way, as the church was first called. And so, answering, “Are we there yet?” was never as important to him as the answer to the question, “How do we live on the journey with God?” And to this, he’s clear: we wait, we stay alert, and we live in ways that prepare us for whenever Jesus comes again in glory to make all things new and inaugurate a new age of eternal life in God’s presence.
Wait. Stay alert. Be prepared. Another way to say these things might be to say, Jesus calls us to anticipate his coming. This word anticipate is perfect for today and this season of Advent, because it literally means to take, or act, in advance. Jesus’s call in today’s passage is to live and act in ways that take in advance God’s coming kingdom. Jesus invites all his followers to shape their lives and choices by our vision for God’s future reality, which we see most fully in Jesus. If this is the case, then the question for us, really, isn’t, “Are we there yet?” but instead, “What does there – what does God’s preferred future – look like?”
The prophet Isaiah gives Jesus, his disciples, and us, a somewhat clearer picture of there, of God’s vision of God’s future kingdom which Jesus is bringing. Here’s what God inspires Isaiah to see in Isaiah 2:1-5.
“In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. 3 Many nations will go and say, “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion; the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. 4 God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. 5 Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light.”
In this passage, Isaiah gives God’s people of every age, including the disciples, Jesus, and us, a vision of God’s kingdom: a kingdom a peace, in which God will teach and guide all peoples, in which war will no longer be taught, let alone practiced, in which the weapons of conflict will be transformed into tools of human flourishing. Now, if we believe, as I do, that God inspired Isaiah to proclaim this vision, then we have to believe that it is not just pie-in-the-sky hope, but instead a real promise of God for God’s people. God promises to bring this kingdom to fruition. As Jesus says, the day and time is not for us to know. Instead, God calls us to anticipate God’s kingdom of peace through active waiting and preparation. God calls us to choose the journey of peace.
Perhaps we can think about choosing God’s journey of peace with the help of a joke about sculpting. Someone asked a skilled sculptor how she goes about carving a horse out of stone. She replies, “It’s simple, really. One just has to chip away every part of the stone that doesn’t look like a horse.” With this mentality, Jesus calls us to choose the journey of peace, anticipating God’s kingdom of peace, by chipping away everything in us and our world that doesn’t look like God’s kingdom of peace.
Some of us might hear in this a call to activism, to literal beating of weapons into agricultural tools. If that’s what you hear, likely, this is God calling. Others of us may not hear this call, but still, God calls. Perhaps we can chip away at that which is not peace by checking our language and our speech with those we love. Could we anticipate Jesus’s coming kingdom of peace by speaking with more care and less violence or hurt? Perhaps we can chip away at that which is not peace by going out of our way to simply build relationship with others who are struggling to feel included or accepted, or who have made our lives challenging. Perhaps we can chip away at that which is not peace by taking up a practice, or a shift in our lives, that makes space for us to see, hear, and experience God’s peace. Perhaps we can chip away that which is not peace by not posting or saying that uselessly critical thing to another that makes us big and them small.
Jesus calls us to a journey of faith, anticipating the kingdom borne in his life. Jesus calls us to a journey of peace, so that others will see, know, and follow Jesus toward God’s kingdom of peace. May it be so.
December 1 is Global AIDS Day
In the United Methodist tradition, it sometimes seems like we’re always having a special offering for some thing or another, often through the denomination’s sponsored “Special Sundays.” All of them, are, I suppose, optional. The UM Global AIDS Fund is also option, and not even one of the official “Special Sundays.”
As the pastor of a church, I get to have some influence in whether or not, and how, we participate with special offerings. Here are two reasons why I choose to participate in the UM Global AIDS Fund offering and invite others to prayerfully consider it.
First, generically, I believe in practical evangelism approach that is inherent in the United Methodist denomination. Perhaps it boils down slightly to the adage – perhaps by Theodore Roosevelt – that people won’t care how much you know until they see how much you care. If part of sharing our faith in Jesus is about sharing a knowledge we’ve come to know, believe, and live, then sometimes people don’t care until they see that we care about them, as people. The UMC’s global health ministries are efforts to show people how much we (and through us, Jesus) cares about them. Caring for people, specifically people affected by HIV/AIDS, is good and Christ-like in itself, and it’s a doorway to build further relationships through which Jesus can bring whole-life healing and wholeness – salvation.
Second, here’s how this plays out a little in a personal way. Even if all the UM Global AIDS Funds resources from our local church goes to some far-off ministries with people we’ll never know, speaking about this ministry is one step toward one of the church’s goals in the HIV/AIDS ministries: reducing stigma.
I once knew a woman whose son died from complications related to HIV/AIDS many years before. She bore that pain and grief privately and rarely let anyone know how her son died. It’s complicated, to be sure. But by mentioning HIV/AIDS, and communicating that people are more than their diseases, I hope to offer Christ’s welcoming, saving, healing presence to people who, like my friend, have felt like they have to suffer and grieve in isolation. This woman needed her church to be a place that broke down stigma related to a disease that took the life of her son. She needed her church to be a people who could be trusted to grieve with her without judgment. She needed her church to be Jesus to her and her son, and I’m not sure she ever fully found that.
Here’s some information from UMC resources about the UM Global AIDS Fund.
A history of responding to need
The people of The United Methodist Church have a powerful record of joining together to develop a commanding response to issues of need. We are a denomination that has played a significant role in abolishing slavery and advocating for child labor laws, women’s suffrage and civil rights. Our prevailing message is that we have the hope, the people and the power to facilitate change.
John Wesley understood the deeply intertwined relationship between poverty and poor health. Wesley’s practical theology set high standards for disciples seeking to live in the example of Jesus Christ, who reached out to those on the margins of society, healed them and sent them back into their community for a greater good. As a faithful response to our discipleship, The United Methodist Church provides health care and aid in more than 27 countries through hospitals, clinic work, parish nursing programs and other volunteer opportunities.
Unfortunately, many of the health issues of Wesley’s time are still a part of the 21st century landscape. Many people and communities throughout Africa, in particular, lack access to the basic rights of nutritious food, clean water, adequate shelter and essential medicines. Through drilling boreholes, building water-purification systems, and developing agricultural resources and adequate housing, the people of The United Methodist Church work tirelessly to help provide a better quality of life for others around the world.
In addition, the General Board of Global Ministries and its Division on Health and Welfare Ministries, United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Women’s Division have been active for decades in galvanizing people and resources to respond to three particularly devastating diseases of poverty: malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. This work has made health care accessible to more people regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or religion.
Renewed focus on eliminating diseases of poverty
There is much more work to be done. In many places around the world, malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis are medically interconnected. As one disease is addressed, the others are affected. For example, as we strive to prevent malaria, a killer disease of poverty, we open the door to tackling larger issues in global health.
In response, The United Methodist Church launched the Global Health Initiative to focus and mobilize the people of The United Methodist Church into action against the diseases of poverty. Working with the United Nations Foundation (U.N. Foundation) and others brings our existing health programs to a new level.
In Washington, D.C., on Dec. 18, 2006, The United Methodist Church and its leaders from around the world convened a Global Health Summit in partnership with the U.N. Foundation. The Summit sparked enthusiasm among religious leaders and dedicated lay people who subsequently committed to an enlarged and renewed focus on global health.
Beginning with malaria
To launch the Global Health Initiative, the church began a major education and fund-raising campaign to focus on one of these diseases: malaria. This effort strengthened our existing in-country clinics and hospitals and assisted in the prevention and treatment of malaria in developing nations.
A new focus on children
Abundant Health – Our Promise to Children is a new global health initiative of The United Methodist Church. Led by the Global Health unit of the General Board of Global Ministries, the program’s goal is to provide grants to faith-based partners around the world to increase access to life-saving interventions to children.
World AIDS Day, observed on Dec. 1 each year, was the first ever global health day and was first held in 1988. It is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection. The United Methodist Church has been a strong supporter of this special day, and the UM Global AIDS Fund urges all congregations to commemorate World AIDS Day either on Dec. 1 or some other day during the year.
Local United Methodist churches in Nebraska and Kansas have an opportunity to apply for the grant “Working for an AIDS-Free World Grant” administered by the Conference Mercy & Justice Team. The grant is funded by the 25 percent of the Global AIDS Fund offering that stays in our Conference for local AIDS projects. (https://www.greatplainsumc.org/globalaidsfund)
How United Methodists Help:
United Methodist Global Ministries (the mission arm of the denomination) works to address the burgeoning HIV crisis through the work of the Global Health Unit. We mobilize and appropriate funding to support projects around the world that prevent the spread of HIV, provide care with those living with HIV/AIDS and improve access to testing and treatment. Programs also help increase the capacity of communities to respond to the epidemic and combat stigma. Global Ministries works in partnership with the United Methodist Global AIDS fund.
The programs we fund specifically address:
- Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
- Prevention of HIV in young people and high-risk populations.
- Access to HIV counseling, testing, and treatment services.
- Stigma reduction.
- Psychosocial support to people living with HIV.
- Overcoming Poverty Together
- Seeking Health and Wholeness for All
- Leading Where God Calls
- Making New Disciples in New Places