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Appearances to the Contrary

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Title: Appearances to the Contrary            1 Corinthians 1:3-9

You can’t say you weren’t warned.  Last Sunday I mentioned that today would mark the beginning of the Advent season. I warned you because it seems that Advent always sneaks up on us.  Every year, it seems, when Advent comes along, we’re not ready for it.

Perhaps that is because it usually begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we’re simply not prepared for what follows so quickly.  Despite the fact that, while the retail businesses around here hardly let the Fourth of July go by without putting out their Christmas decorations, we’re not in as big a hurry, are we?

But, it may also have to do with the nature of the season itself.  You see, the Christian calendar has a different timetable from the rest of the world.  Or, so it seems.  Today, the first Sunday in Advent, also marks the first Sunday of the new Christian year. Did you know that?

Our normal calendar, of course, goes from January 1 to December 31.  But there are other calendars operating under the surface.  For example, I don’t know when it starts, but I can tell you that the end of the year for accountants is April 15.  And although they seem to be changing, getting longer every year, school calendars have always been different. Used to be, they started in September.  Now, school begins in August.  Used to be, they ended in May; now, it’s well into June before the children are let loose.  For the hunters in our congregation, everything else stops when the deer and the antelope – not to mention the ducks – cease their play and head for cover.

But so the hunters won’t think I’m picking on them, I’ll tell this story...

I once played golf with a fellow I did not know.  He was by himself and so was I, so we joined together.  A pleasant enough person, as I recall.  As we talked, we found we had much in common... at least when it came to our love of the game.  Other than that, frankly... not much.  When he found out I was the pastor of this church, he became a bit edgy and was hesitant to tell me what he did for a living.  Finally, he informed me that he was a local liquor distributor.

But when it came to golf, we were on the same page.

About midway into the round he asked me what day it was.  "June 21," I reminded him.  Upon my response he became rather glum.  When I asked him what was the matter, he said he always hated to see June 21 come around.  Why, I wanted to know.  Because now, he informed me, the days would start to get shorter and that would leave less time for golf.

Now that, my friends, is a real golfer.  His world revolved around the summer solstice.  That was his calendar.

So what does your calendar tell you, other than this is the fourth Sunday in November, the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the first Sunday of Advent?  If nothing else, it should tell you that it’s getting dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor points out something that is obvious, but perhaps not often considered; namely, that the beginning of the Christian year begins in the dark.  She means, of course, that this is the time of the year when we approach the days of least sunlight.  It’s getting dark these days around 5:00, and every day the darkness comes earlier and earlier... until we reach December 21, the shortest day of the year.  In other words, the season of Advent will see each day get increasingly darker.

Perhaps that is why, week by week, we light one more candle.  As the days get darker earlier, we provide more light as we wait for God’s coming into our world in human flesh.  As we wait.

The Apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, speaks to a people who are waiting.  As he puts it, they are waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (vs. 7).  We have talked before of how the early Christians wondered about this promise that Jesus would come again.  And when he did not come quickly, they began losing hope.  Many of the letters Paul wrote addressed this increasing sense of anxiety.  The early Christians lived with the tension of not knowing when Jesus would return.  They were, in Paul’s words, waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Truth be told, the Christians in Corinth weren’t doing a very good job of it.

And Paul knew it.  There were problems in the church at Corinth.  In fact, the problems ran so deep it would take a miracle for them to be made right.  But that didn’t keep Paul from saying to them that Christ would "strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Boy, that’s a hoot.  The people in Corinth would be blameless.  At the time Paul writes his letter, they are hardly blameless. Weaker, less mature members were being intimidated by those who thought themselves to be spiritually superior.  Which, of course, begs the question: who really are the mature ones around here?  Evidently, not anybody.  You had some folks who were anxious about where they stood in terms of their relationship to Christ, and you had others who were so certain of their spiritual status as to be downright cocky about it.  They were behaving like people who had lost all hope.  They had given up.  When it came to waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ," they were doing a lousy job of it.

Well, even if they are not being very faithful, God is, Paul tells them.  God is faithful, and for that reason there is always room for hope, despite the fact that appearances seem to indicate otherwise. Appearances to the contrary, God is faithful to the promises that are so important to us, especially at this time of year.

It all depends, I suppose, on what we are hoping for.  You see, waiting and hoping go together.  What is it you are waiting for this year?  What is it you are hoping for?

Let me share this story with you from another pastor. He Begins: It was the Sunday night before Christmas in 1979.  Janet’s father had recently undergone coronary bypass surgery and Janet had been with him and the family in Memphis.  Timothy, who was just about to turn two years old, had been staying with my parents in Paragould.  Since Emily was in school and I was working, she and I had stayed by ourselves in Nashville until we could get away to be reunited with our family.

After the final Sunday evening worship service before Christmas (we didn’t have a Christmas Eve service in our church), I loaded our luggage and all our Christmas presents inside and on top of our little 1967 Volkswagen Bug, and Emily and I took off.  We had to take the Volkswagen because our six-year-old Oldsmobile had become far less than dependable.  Not that the Volkswagen was.  You see, to complicate matters we had to make the entire trip in a hard, pouring rain, and the windshield wipers operated only because I had tied them in directly to the fuse box with a wire and an alligator clip.

It was undoubtedly the longest, hardest four-and-a-half-hour-turned-six-hour trip I have ever made.  Visibility was terrible, I wondered if the latest swish of the wipers was going to be the last swish of the wipers, and if you ever drove it you would know that the country between Nashville, Tennessee and Paragould, Arkansas, up through western Tennessee and across the Missouri bootheel, is pretty desolate, especially on a late December night in a pouring rain.  I had not seen my wife and son for two weeks... during the Christmas season, no less.  I was exhausted from the extra workload that always accompanies this time of year, not to mention being a single parent for two weeks, for which I was ill-suited.  My fatigue was equaled only by my anxiety to get to our destination.

What kept me going through the rain that night was the knowledge that at the end of the road was the warmth of my parents’ home and a reunion with my wife and son.  What kept me going was the light waiting for us in the midst of a cold, rainy, and dark December night.  When we finally arrived, we found that our waiting family was even more anxious for our arrival than we were.

It seems like we spend so much of our time waiting.  Waiting.

To make our waiting even harder, every Christmas season seems to be more difficult than the one before.  Our culture doesn’t help either.  We live in a world that is becoming increasingly more secular every day.  When Wal-Mart refuses to use Christmas in their holiday promotion, you know things are not going well.  Christmas is more about stores opening at 5:00 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, insuring that retailers will do well enough to keep our economy going, than it is about announcing the birth of God becoming human flesh.

And that’s the least of it, to be honest.  The worst of it is that people, in the name of God – in the name of God, for crying out loud – blow themselves up for a cause they think is not only just but is actually directed by God.  And these very people hate people like you and me.

You know, I could paint a very bleak picture of our world situation today.  But then I think of Paul.  He’s probably in a prison somewhere and he gets reports that the people in the church at Corinth are misbehaving.  Yet, what does he say to them?  "I give thanks to my God always for you... God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." Blameless?  You’ve got to be kidding!  Blameless?  They’re some of the least blameless people in the universe.

But Paul wasn’t talking about them as much as he was talking about God.  And I think that would be a good way to look at it this year as we enter the Advent season.  Let’s not think of all that is wrong with the world, despite the fact that there is indeed plenty wrong with it.

Appearances to the contrary, God will come to us again in human flesh and dwell among us.  The hope that marks this special season is not generated by us.  It is a gift come from God, and if we will open our hearts this season to receive it, appearances to the contrary, God will indeed dwell with us.

That, I would think, is worth hoping for.  Do you agree?

Lord, we wait for your coming to us... to strengthen us to the very end, so that on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ we too will be blameless.  So come, Lord Jesus, come... into our hearts today.  Amen.

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