Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The glory of Jesus


Jesus said, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Well, good morning. My name’s John Newton and I work for the Diocese as Bishop Doyle’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means for the most part that I’m in a new congregation each Sunday. But St. John’s is the church that my beautiful wife Emily and I call home. And because this feels like home whenever I preach here I’m always a little bit more nervous. And in particular, yesterday, I was a panicky because I woke up and didn’t have a sermon. And not for lack of preparation. I made notes. I read commentaries. I even did a group Bible study. But, you know, nothing clicked. So I browsed through old sermons hoping to recycle one. But I decided you deserve better. Plus, I didn’t have any – first time preaching on Luke 21. And so my heart was “weighed down” as Jesus put it today with the cares of this life.

You see, a little secret you might not know about us preachers: we put a lot of weight in your opinion. We want you to think we’re competent, smart and faithful and far too often it’s actually from you and what you think that we derive our sense of worth and significance. And that’s why I panicked. “What if Sunday rolls around and I don’t have anything to say, what they will think? And if they don’t think it’s good, how will I be able to stand up and raise my head?”

You see, all humans are desperate to know we have significance – to stand tall and raise our head – and far too often we spend our lives chasing after something we think can give it to us.

And it can be anything. What someone thinks of our sermon. Our reputation. A relationship. Our achievements. Our spouse. Our kids. Our portfolio. Our I.Q. Our own moral obedience, piety and religious observances. Being independent. But we all put emotional weight on something hoping against hope that it will help us lift our head in this world and quite frankly give us the cosmic significance we all crave. But what eventually happens is that our hearts get weighed down because intuitively we know that we were created for something more significant, something weightier, than the cares of this life.

Now, today’s the 1st Sunday of Advent and Advent is actually about that Something Weightier, that Something More Significant, arriving in our world not for the first time but for the second. In other words, Advent’s about Jesus Christ coming back not just with power but with power and great glory. And so this morning, I want to answer two questions.

First -- What is glory, and what does it mean to say that Jesus will come with glory?

Second -- What can we do to prepare for this reality so that, as Luke says, when Jesus comes, or we meet Him in death, we can “stand up and raise our heads” with confidence?

And so first, what is glory? Well, the Biblical word glory has two similar meanings. It means weight, or heaviness, but it also means significance or value. The word glory, more than anything, alludes to the real presence of God. The real God is weighty. The real God is heavy. The real God has significance. And that’s why when the real God shows up in the Bible there’s often an earthquake. Mount Sinai’s the perfect example. The real God shows up, the mountain shakes. Right? Because – the real God is so much heavier, so much weightier, than a mountain.

For example, if I drop this pen on the ground (drop pen) it will barely make a sound because the ground has a lot more glory, a lot more weight, than a pen – right? But if a meteorite falls from other space the ground will be crushed because the meteorite has more glory or weight than the surface of the ground.

And so on this first Sunday of Advent as we ponder Jesus’ future return in glory, I’m not sure there’s a more crucial question than this – what’s the weightiest thing in our life? In other words, what’s more real or pressing to our heart than anything else? What do we rely on in this world to stand up with our heads raised? Is it a real, deep and personal friendship with Jesus – and a knowledge of His love, mercy and grace – or is it something else?

Now – a warning to those of us who attend church every week, read our Bible and like to debate the finer points of doctrine – Advent isn’t about getting more familiar with God as a concept, but about standing before the Living Christ in all of His glory and being changed.

You see there’s a problem with the concept of God. It has a lot less glory than our ego. The concept of God is like the pen. And if we drop the concept of God into our life or into our church it will leave us unbroken and will barely make a sound. But in the Bible, when people encounter the Living God, their tiny wants, needs and life-pursuits are always crushed and their life is rearranged.

There was a book that came out in 1972 and twice it was made into a movie – The Stepford Wives. In it the men of Stepford engineer a way to turn their wives into robots. And so women who were once real and able to contradict and challenge their husbands are changed into submissive machines that only exist for a single purpose – and that’s to meet the needs and desires of their husbands.

Here’s the problem with only relating to God as a concept. It’s a Stepford God. If God to us is nothing more than a concept it’s inevitable that we’ll make Him into a robot that only exists to meet our needs and desires. You see a Stepford God has no glory. He can’t contradict us or challenge us. And that’s why the concept of God is light. But the real God is so much weightier than us and our idols. And that’s why it’s not the knowledge of God that transforms us. It’s the experience of God that transforms us.

And so when we talk about Jesus returning in glory, what we’re trying to do is capture the reality that when Jesus returns, we who rest in His mercy and grace will finally have that complete and total transforming experience – what Jesus calls “redemption” in today’s Gospel. You see, the transformation we experience in this life, though real, it still pales in comparison to what will be experienced when we stand before our Lord. And if you think about it, that’s both encouraging and challenging, because when we stand before the One for whom and through whom we were created, we will no longer be able to perpetuate any illusion that we have any significance at all apart from our relationship with Him.

And so as we affirm our belief that our life will culminate with an encounter with the real Jesus – not our concept of Jesus, but the real Jesus – there’s always the question of – “what does that mean for our life” – so that when we do meet Him we can as Luke says “stand up and raise our heads” with confidence without zero fear of being crushed?

And so let me first be clear on what the answer is not. The answer is not “roll up your sleeves and get to work.” There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming -- look busy!” Great bumper sticker, bad theology. Because – if we listened carefully to today’s Gospel, there’s only one thing Jesus says that will last, that has ultimate significance, and that won’t pass away.

And that’s His word to us. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he says, “but my words will not pass away.”

And Jesus’ word to us isn’t try harder, or shape up, or “I’m so disappointed get your act together.” No, Jesus’ word to us is one of grace. “Come to me all you who are tired and burdened and I will give you rest. “Fear not little flock,” as He says in Luke 12, “For it’s your Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Or from today’s Gospel – “stand up and raise your heads.”

You see the word Gospel doesn’t mean good advice or good works or good luck trying to please God, the word Gospel literally means good news. And Jesus’ word to us, which will not pass away, is good news. And that’s why Advent reminds us that because Jesus alone is significant and Valuable it’s foolish to put too much emotional weight in anything we do and to shift our deepest hope in what He’s done for us. Because – heaven and earth may pass away, but his word – which is the good news that we are so precious to God that we’re worth dying for – that word will never pass away.

And to the extent that we rely on that word, we will be able to stand confidently before Jesus, knowing that His glory won’t be like a meteor that crushes us, nor will it be like a pen that barely makes a sound. But in a way that’s almost too mysterious to comprehend, because of what Jesus did on the cross, the experience of his mercy and grace and love will be so heavy, so weighty, so glorious, that it will crush our sins without crushing us; and that this experience of God will transforms us, once and for all.

Because – the message of Advent is not get busy being more religious and learn to make Jesus your glory. But rather, it’s rest, watch wait and ponder what it means for you to be Jesus’ glory. For we can only make Him significant to us to the extent that we know how significant we are to Him.

And so, don’t let your heart be weighed down with the worries of this life. Jesus doesn’t want this day to catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. But root your life in Jesus’ word to you, which will not pass away. You are so incredibly weighty to Him. Knowing that will make Him weighty to you.

Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. And so when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

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