The following is the text of a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 17 November, 2019 at Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. It was accompanied by a week of devotionals that are posted here. The devotionals are posted in reverse order. If you read them, read from the bottom up.
It is a privilege to look into the Word of God with you this morning, one for which I am grateful. I’m grateful for all of your prayers, and for the support and encouragement I’ve received in preparing for this day. Would you pray with me?
Almighty God, we thank you for your presence here with us in the person of your Holy Spirit. May each of us, myself especially. hear what the Spirit would say to us today. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the current liturgical year. December 1st marks the beginning of Advent and a new year. The end of the liturgical year looks forward to the end of the current age, to the time when Christ will come to restore and reign over His creation. I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about that restoration, but first we need to look at what needs to be restored. Then, at the end, we’ll look at what to do in the meantime.
This summer I decided to read through C.S. Lewis’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. I have finished only four books. In the beginning of C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who is the first person who travels through the wardrobe? Whom does Lucy first meet in Narnia? What kind of creature is Mr. Tumnus? Mr. Tumnus is a faun. Not a cousin of Bambi, but a creature that is half goat and half human. Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that the place where she finds herself is Narnia, and Narnia is under the control of the White Witch, who has corrupted the climate so that it is, in Mr. Tumnus’s words, “always winter but never Christmas.”
Some of you may feel that it’s always winter but never Christmas now, either because of personal circumstances or because of the state of the world we live in. This is nothing new. We read these words from Isaiah 59: 9–11:
9 Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.
11 We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.
We don’t need the eyes of a prophet, though, to see that we live in a time of corruption and loss. Some of the trouble may come from ourselves, from poor choices that we make or from idols that we set up that turn us away from God. Some of the trouble we experience comes from evils in the society in which we live. Look at how racism and xenophobia have increased in the last few years in many places in the world, including the supposed melting pot that is the United States.
Some corruption has affected the physical environment, which in turn has effects on other things. Think about the recent wildfires in California. Extreme environmental conditions, probably worsened by climate change, combined with alleged human failures, have disrupted many lives through fire damage, power outages, and evacuations. Closer to home, each one of us probably knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone who has contracted a disease linked to environmental corruption. My own brother had a form of leukemia linked to industrial chemicals that he was exposed to as a carpenter.
The corruption that is evident in the world affects more than just the people in the world. Genesis 3:17–18 tell us that thorns and thistles will infest the ground as a result of the fall. In our time we are seeing wildlife population losses and even extinctions from human causes. A study published in October in the journal Science reported that the bird population of the United States declined by about twenty-five percent between 1970 and 2018. Even the state bird of New Jersey, the American Goldfinch, might have to move its nests out of state because it will be too warm in New Jersey in the not-too-distant future. These might seem like trivial things, but birds and bugs and bigger beasts are all part of the creation that God called “good” in Genesis 1:25. Matthew 10:20 tells us that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware of it.
One of the saddest manifestations of the corruption of our age is in the Christian Church. Pastor Margo decried this state in her sermon last week. Maybe you are convinced that the religious right has sold its soul to the devil. Maybe you’re convinced that the progressive church is sliding down the slippery slope to apostasy. Presbyterians call themselves “people of the middle way,” so maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, wondering if the Church in America will ever be able to stand up and bear witness to the mercy and grace of God again. False teachers and false gospels seem to dominate the spiritual landscape. How it must break the heart of God to see the church in such a compromised, confused state.
Soon it will be Christmas. Soon. Not yet.
In spite of the corruption that we see around us, restorations are possible here and now. We pray for someone who is injured or ill, and often that person gets well. The human body has a remarkable capacity to recover from illness and injury. My mother-in-law fell down a flight of stairs a little over a year ago. She was almost ninety-five at the time and we all thought she would quickly decline and become unable to care for herself. But you prayed, and we prayed, and about six weeks later she walked back into her own home. We give thanks for the medical science that supports such healing while we acknowledge that all knowledge, including medical science, comes down from above, from the Father of lights.
Restoration here and now is possible in the world of animals, birds, and other creatures. The local NPR station reported recently that a skunk had been spotted in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Indiscriminate pesticide use in the early twentieth century had all but eliminated skunks from Long Island. Now they’re making a comeback. I think skunks are cool. I don’t befriend them, though, and I wish they would replace their divots! Bald eagles are fairly common now in the Meadowlands. Peregrine falcons are making a comeback in unlikely places, including the New York metro area and Chicago. Of course, deer, bear, and even turkey, once scarce in parts of New Jersey, have come back in force and are now considered nuisances in many towns.
I wish I could be sanguine about recovery in civil society and the church. We seem to become more polarized by the day, if not the hour. Social media and some news outlets magnify the divisions among us. James 4:1 warns us not to speak evil of one another, but that warning is falling on ears covered by noise-canceling headphones. In contrast, one of the reasons I look forward to coming to Grace is that we seem to be able to put our private passions aside, at least long enough to worship and serve the Lord together. I’m pretty sure we don’t all agree on all of the issues that we face in this country, but that doesn’t show when we’re together here.
Although we may see some short-term restorations, we know that they are just that. Lazarus left his tomb, but eventually he had to return. Nick reminded us a few weeks ago that graves were opened when Jesus died on the cross; it may have been the outcome of Jesus descending to proclaim the good news to the souls in Sheol. But anyone who emerged from the grave on that day eventually returned to it.
There is coming a day when Christ will come to restore His creation fully and reign over it. Ralph Acerno took us to the New Heaven and Earth two weeks ago, using Revelation 21 and 22 as his text. I’m sorry to say, though, that his sermon did not get recorded. It was a good one. Isaiah also tells us about New Heavens and a New Earth in Isaiah 65, which we read together a few minutes ago. It bears repeating.
17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. We’ll have work to do, and we will enjoy the fruits of that labor. I like that the New Heavens and the New Earth feature agriculture. Wildlife is also prominent, as we also saw from the passage in Isaiah 11 that Mia read from earlier:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isn’t that wonderful? Aren’t you ready for that now?
Now we know from the first coming of Jesus that He didn’t fulfill the expectations that many Israelites had for their Messiah. He had His own agenda, and some Old Testament prophecies about His coming and His earthly ministry were fulfilled in interesting ways. As Ralph Acerno said two weeks ago, the same is likely to be true in the New Heavens and New Earth, so it will be interesting to see how some of these prophecies of the second coming become physical reality.
What to Do While We Wait
Jesus is coming back. “No one but the Father knows” when that will be. Meanwhile, we are not to sit on our hands and stare at the cosmic clock, crying “How Long, O Lord,” and waiting for it to strike thirteen.
In the passage that Dylan read so clearly in Luke 19:11–23, Jesus told a parable about a nobleman who went on a journey to receive a royal appointment. He gave ten of his servants one mina, or pound each (about the equivalent of a day’s wage) and told them to use the money to do business on his behalf while he was away. There are some unsettling details of this parable, and we might wonder why Jesus included them, but the central message is that the servants were given resources and an assignment and then were given rewards based on how well they carried out that assignment.
We have to be careful not to read too much into parables, but it’s apparent from the outcome that this was intended as a test. We can easily imagine, without stretching the text, that the nobleman was going to be appointed governor of the province. As governor he would need to delegate authority. So, this was his way of finding out which of his servants could handle the additional responsibility.
One took the assignment very seriously and increased the sum entrusted to him by one thousand percent. Another increased it by five hundred percent. The nobleman praised and rewarded those two servants for their diligence and efforts. A third servant took the money and hid it, citing his fear and disdain for the nobleman. That’s not a good strategy for getting a promotion and raise, and the foolish servant paid the price for it.
Jesus is away on a journey. He has ascended into heaven. Before He departed, He gave His disciples and, by extension, us, assignments to work on while He is away. He also gave us resources to invest. We’ll look at some of them in our remaining time together.
In Matthew’s Mark’s, and Luke’s gospels and in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his followers that they are to go into the world and make disciples, and for that we have the Word of God and the Spirit of God as our resources. Some of you host Bible studies. You teach in Sunday School or youth or children’s ministries. You support missions through Grace’s mission program or through private donations to missions agencies. Some of you might even be courageous enough to tell people that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. I’m not always that brave.
Jesus told His disciples in John’s Gospel that the world will know them for who they are if they love one another. I think Grace Church understands this commandment well and takes it seriously. You pray for one another. You take care of one another in tangible ways, such as through the Prayer Ministry, the Mercy Ministry, and the Meals Ministry. You have gifts of compassion and hospitality, given to you by that same Holy Spirit, that enable these ministries.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talked about giving cups of cold water to those in need, feeding hungry people, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, tending to the sick, and even visiting those in prison. Such needs are evident all around us. God may have given you financial resources, time, and energy for these ministries. God also gives gifts of compassion, generosity, and hospitality to enable us to meet these needs. Over the years, because of the passion and abilities of Grace Church members, our church has entered into ministries that carry out these assignments. Think of MESH. Think of IHN. Think of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance.
Pastor Leggett’s absence has also opened a window of opportunity for us to look ahead and think about what kind of church we want to be in the future. Joel’s prophesy tells us that those of us who are get senior discounts dream dreams. Our brains make sense of what they see by evaluating it in terms of past experience. Those who are younger see visions. They imagine things that don’t yet exist. Who are the dreamers and visionaries of Grace who will imagine and implement new ways of advancing the kingdom of God from this corner of Montclair? As I look around this congregation, I see young adults, families with young children, GenXers, a lot of Baby Boomers, and a good number of octogenarians and nonagenarians. You are Deacons and Elders. You take care of our IHN and MESH guests. You put together special events for the Grace family. I don’t see the Sunday School teachers because they’re elsewhere in the building.
You take care of church property, church finances, meals ministries, visitation ministries, communion preparation. You serve on ministry teams, serve communion, or sing in the choir. Maybe you do several of those things. You show up week in and week out to worship in this place when your bodies might be telling you to stay home and watch some megachurch pastor. Like the diligent servants in Jesus’ parable, you take the resources that are entrusted to you, you invest them wisely, and you steward them carefully. God bless you for that.
Perhaps you are passionate about concerns that aren’t currently represented at Grace, such as literacy, hospice care, or creation care. Maybe you volunteer at Mountainside Hospital, coach a sports team, or sponsor a child through Compassion International. During the growing season I spend a couple of hours a week planting, weeding, and harvesting at City Green’s farm in Clifton. There are so many needs and so many opportunities to work toward meeting them.
In your stewardship of time, energy, and finances, though, I hope you give Grace Church a position of prominence. The church is not going to survive, let alone thrive, on casual commitments.
Christmas is coming. Jesus may be preparing to return at this very moment. May God bless you as you invest the resources that He’s given to you while you wait for His return.
Most gracious Heavenly Father, we are humbled that you have entrusted so much of your business to us, the imperfect creatures that we are. May we be good stewards of all the resources that you have entrusted to us, our time, energy, passions, skills, and even our finances, as we carry out that business. Thank you above all for our Lord Jesus, who died for the sins of the world, and whose return we await. In His name we pray. Amen.
Thank you very much for stopping by and for reading this far.