Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 2 Dec 2018 14:58

The text of Mike's sermon preached at 10:30am on 2nd Dec (Advent 1)

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Advent is a double season. It’s a time when we can prepare ourselves to remember again God’s fulfilment of his promises through the birth of Jesus. It’s a time when we can rejoice that in Jesus the words of Jeremiah that we heard are fulfilled:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

But it’s also a time for us to prepare for Jesus’ second coming. That aspect of Advent is often forgotten in the fun and jubilation of Christmas. Traditionally, Advent is a time to remember the Four Last Things: “Death, judgement, heaven and hell”.

It’s a time when we ask God to “strengthen our hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the final coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints”, as we heard from 1 Thessalonians.

It’s a time when we hope to “be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” as we heard from Luke 21.

The theologian Fleming Rutledge says: “The uniqueness of Advent is that it really forces us to more than any other season, even more than Lent, to look deeply into what is wrong in the world...and why our greatest hopes are so often confounded...” she goes on to say that evil “can only be overcome in the last analysis by an interventions from another sphere. This is what is promised in Jesus Christ.”

And so, as much as I’d love to preach a cuddly sermon about preparing for Christmas, I think I need to talk about death, judgement, heaven and hell. With the exception of heaven, those things make me uncomfortable. Death, judgement and hell probably make you uncomfortable too. They should. We don’t like to talk about them.

But death is inevitable, and the Bible is unequivocal that there will come a judgement on this world and that some will make the choice to reject God and find themselves in hell.

I don’t want to say too much about hell today. There are lots of ways to understand it. I’m a 21st century, fairly liberal, post-modern person and lots of urges within me want to reject the idea of hell. But again, the Bible is pretty unambiguous that there will be some kind of post-mortem reckoning for those who do not acknowledge God.

So let’s talk about judgement. Let’s look deeply into what is wrong with the world. Let’s acknowledge that much of what is wrong in our own lives starts in our own hearts and minds. Let’s acknowledge that it is our selfishness, hardness of heart and greed that is at the root of so many of our troubles, and beneath them still is a refusal to accept God’s just and gentle rule.

It is these things that rightly bring us under judgement. They weigh us down. They stop us becoming the people God is calling us to be. They stop us acknowledging God’s grace.

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we’ll say the prayer of humble access. One version acknowledges that “we were not fit even to eat the crumbs under your table… but you, Lord, share your bread with sinners”. The other states “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table… but your nature is always to have mercy”.

By and large, I think most Christians fall into one of two traps. I wonder if you’ll recognise either of them in yourself…

Some Christians really hear those words “we are not worthy”, they know that they are not worthy to eat at God’s table. And so, sometimes these people come thinking, deep down, “I shouldn’t be here. I’m a fraud. I’m not really welcome at God’s table”.

Other Christians tend to focus on the words of welcome. God grants us a welcome to his table and shares his bread with sinners. Such Christians perhaps think, deep down, “if I’m welcome here then I must be basically OK – I can’t be that unworthy”.
I wonder if you recognise yourself in either of those.

The great paradox at the heart of Christian faith is that we are both unworthy and welcome at the same time, because of what Jesus has done. Our unworthiness requires us to examine our lives; God’s welcome empowers us to move on from our failures.

Don’t let a sense of unworthiness rob you of knowing the power of God’s welcome to sinners. But don’t let your enjoyment of God’s welcome fool you into thinking that there is nothing for you to put right in your life. You are unworthy AND welcome.

It’s sometimes said that God “forgives and forgets” our sins. But as Bruce Macartney is fond of reminding me, that isn’t true. God forgives, yes; but he doesn’t forget. The Bible tells us that God does not remember our sins; he no longer holds them against us. The things we do wrong cannot be redeemed by pretending they never happened; the consequences of sin are often far-reaching and cannot simply be “forgotten”. Sin can only be redeemed and dealt with when we face it head on and look it in the eye and tell the truth about it.

When we confess our sins God does not say, “There, there. I forgive you. It’s forgotten. It doesn’t really matter”. When we confess God says: “Your sin matters a great deal. But you are forgiven. I choose not to remember it; I don’t hold your sins against you. By the Holy Spirit you are empowered to live differently”.

So let’s do some soul work this morning. Or, better, let’s allow God to do some soul work in us. I’m going to slowly read through the prayer of confession again and give us time to really reflect on our lives. For those of you who perhaps tend to focus on God’s welcome and assume that you are basically OK, this prayer is for you. Allow the Spirit to bring to mind the things you need to confess.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you
and against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
in the evil we have done 
and in the good we have not done,
through ignorance, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.

We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins. 
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us,
forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life;  to the glory of your name.               Amen

For all of you, especially those of you who perhaps find it easier to dwell on sin and struggle with the idea that you are welcome. Hear these words:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Hear then the word of grace: Your sins are forgiven. God will remember them no more. You are welcome at God’s table. By the spirit you are empowered to live differently and to face with boldness your past, present and future.

We are all unworthy. We are all welcome. Thanks be to God.

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