Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Nearer than before"

Message preached November 28, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Romans 13:11-14

Order of Worship

            Harv Frederick was the oldest living member of a congregation I served in the midwest. For nearly fifty years he had been a teacher and principal at the school just down the road. Most of our older members had grown up under his watchful eye. Around his ninetieth birthday, we honored him by opening up a time in worship for him to come forward and share his wisdom with us. Our plans involved maybe five to ten minutes out of an hour-long service.

            On that Sunday we honored him, Harv slowly but surely made his way up front as we all waited. He then stood beside the pulpit, leaned on it, and launched into his memories of the "old times" in the church. "Do you remember when?" heíd ask, and proceed to name names of youngsters who were now the "old fogeys" in that congregation, recalling some childhood prank or other activity. It was like the years between yesterday and today evaporated, and this teacher once again stood before all his students - as if they were in elementary school.

            The younger part of the congregation loved to hear the sometimes embarrassing stories of their elders, the supposed pillars of the church. However, it was these older folks - who were the bedrock of that fellowship - who enjoyed it the most. Time slipped away, and they were children again. That Sunday I folded up my sermon, for Harv had greatly expanded his few minutes of honor and delivered a message better than I could preach...

            The older you get, the more important the past becomes. For some, remembering a time many years ago is easier than recalling what happened only yesterday. When we think of Christmas, there is an instant divide in our congregation. For the older folks, Christmas is a warm recollection from the past, a wistfulness for days gone by. "Do you remember when?" Funny how some of our memories are built upon the memories of others. "Dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh...." That didnít come from an episode in my experience - I donít know about yours. Yet itís somehow built into our memories of Christmas, and good-old days of yore.

            The youngest part of our fellowship, on the other hand, doesnít look back when it comes to Christmas. Their eyes are looking forward. Anticipation, not nostalgia, is the overriding emotion. Tomorrow is so near you can almost taste it, and yet is seems like it takes forever for it to get here. Thatís just the opposite from the experience of their elders. Right? "Remember when?" we ask, and yesterday is so close it can almost be touched. The days ahead, though, run past at breakneck speed. "My gracious, is it only 27 days to Christmas?!" we cry as we turn from the past to face the future - or at least some of us do. For others the complaint is, "Oh man, I canít believe Christmas is still 27 days away!"

            Today begins the season of Advent, an intentional time - built into the church year - of preparation for the coming of Christ. These 27 days revolve around a pun. What is a pun? If you think of a pun as only a joke, youíre only partially right. Sometimes puns are humorous ... in a painful kind of way. Usually we groan rather than guffaw in response, as a word is twisted into two different meanings. Last week, for instance, I incorporated the use of a cymbal (i.e. the percussion instrument) into my message. Afterward, brother Leon (our congregationís head punster) told me my sermon was full of symbolism. Groan!

            The season of Advent itself revolves around a pun, but itís not a joke. During this time we prepare the way for the coming of Christ. On the one hand, itís the celebration of Christmas weíre looking toward. We recall how this tiny baby, so vulnerable and marginal (there was no room in the Inn, after all), was the means God chose to step into the life of this world in order to save it from itself. Much of what we do at this time of year is ask: "Remember when?" Of course, our memories of this event are not built upon our own eyewitness accounts. None of us were there. Even so, when the preacher stands beside the pulpit and starts talking about this past event, we become like little children again. Itís like it only happened yesterday.

            As I said, however, Advent is itself a pun for, on the other hand, during this season we look ahead toward another coming, and itís not the "ho, ho, ho!" of Christmas. God is not finished with this world, you see. There is more to come. Christ will return, we claim, there will be a second coming. This is not something we link up with through our memories. We canít say, "Remember when?" and get drawn up into a vivid recollection, so near you can almost touch it. No, itís more akin to the wide-eyed anticipation of children for an event that is still agonizingly far away, but is also so close you can almost taste it.

            When the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome about the nearness of the day of salvation and the importance of waking from sleep, he was talking about the second side of the Advent pun. The church in his day lived with a vivid awareness that change could happen any moment, Christ would return, possibly even as soon as 27 days from that very moment. These were people who lived in anticipation of Godís future breaking forth into the present.

            Of course, Jesus didnít return then. Now, I know that some children start anticipating the next Christmas as soon as the last one is past. Imagine, however, waiting for a Christmas that just didnít come. Itís hard to stay prepared for something that long. Think about the Thanksgiving just past. The food cooks and the aroma fills the house. Your mouth waters as you mentally get ready. Maybe you even wash your hands without being told ... or not. Now imagine if the meal never then takes place. Thatís the dilemma faced by the early church. Anticipation waned.

            Fast forward three hundred years. By this point in time, Christians have multiplied in number and influence in the Roman Empire. There is still that anticipation of the future, and the coming of Godís reign into this world, but now there is also more of a sense of "remember when?" Believers still gather and break bread "in remembrance," but they no longer do so in secret places for fear of being discovered and martyred for their faith. This meal, yes, still has that future flavor of a heavenly banquet to be celebrated when Christ gathers Godís children home. However, as bread is broken and the cup is passed, they "remember when" Jesus gave his life to save the world, and the crucifixion is like it happened only yesterday.

            By this point in time, Christianity had become an accepted religion of the Empire, for better or worse. There were naysayers, though, who looked at the diminishing power around them, and blamed the Christians. Itís hard for a human construct, even a system so efficient as the Roman Empire was, to not eventually dissolve. The fall of Rome didnít happen overnight, but it did happen. Believe it or not, there were many old timers back then who were deeply concerned about the gradual breakdown of Roman society, the falling apart of traditional families, the lack of responsibility of younger generations, the falling apart of public morality, and blamed it on "Christianity." Emperor Constantine was the idiot, many Romans believed, who allowed this wicked religion to gain a foothold. Ever since, itíd been all downhill. These folks had a different memory, of a time when the gods were honored and their commandments obeyed.

            It was into this time frame that someone named Aurelius Augustinus was born. His mother was one of those Christians, though his father was not. I wonít bore you with the details of his life, suffice it to say that he reminds me of a number of people I know, raised with a faith in Jesus but intellectually grappling with it. For the first thirty years of his life he wandered through various religions, along the way fathering a child by a mistress without benefit of marriage. Eventually, he got a job as a teacher in the Roman city of Milan.

            It was there, in his 32nd year, that Augustine encountered the living God. He was going through a period of spiritual and emotional turmoil, wrestling with the faith of his youth. According to his own recollections, one day - as he was struggling to make sense of his life - he overhead a child next door. Who knows what game was being played, but the voice of that little one chanted over and over: "take up and read, take up and read." So, Augustine did just that. He took up Paulís letter to the Romans and started reading in the thirteenth chapter - the very words Nathan read earlier. He later wrote:

         "I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: ĎNot in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.í No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away." (Confessions of St. Augustine, 8:11:29)

            Augustine went on to become one of the great Christian theologians of his day. It was he who most effectively responded to the charge of the pagan moral majority of his time that Christians were to blame for the breakdown of Roman society. With his writings, Augustine helped erect the framework for a ĎChristianí society. In this very human "city," as he termed it, we now live, grounded in our remembered faith. However, we do not lose our anticipation for a greater "city of God," which is to come. We live, he said, in the tension between these two cities.

            Back to Advent and our preparation for the coming of Christ. As you and I well know, things get interesting at this time of year. As we get ready for Christmas, weíre never really sure what religion is being celebrated in all these holiday traditions. "Remember when it wasnít so commercialized?" we older folks ask each other, as if there was a day when people didnít try to make a buck off of Christmas. "Remember when it was ĎMerry Christmasí instead of ĎHappy Holidays?í" we cry, even as we have always had neighbors with Menorahs on their mantels. "Remember when Christ was in Christmas?" we ponder. I wonder, though, who took Christ out? Have some Ďpaganí people been forcing us to stop remembering? Has some conspiracy been taking away our anticipation of Godís future?

            You know, maybe we - like Augustine - need to pay attention to that playful childlike voice. "Take up and read, take up and read," it may be saying to us as we prepare for the coming of Christ. Whatís stopping us? Hmm...

         "But make sure that you donít get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work he began when we first believed. We canít afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Donít loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!" (Romans 13:11-14, from The Message)

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Romans.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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