(Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/fiN0H-wwrW4)
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In just a few, short weeks we will begin our annual journey through the Advent season as we await the birth of our Lord Jesus. This long season of Pentecost that we began back in May will again come to an end. Jesus comes to us anew each year and enters into our hearts and lives in fresh and exciting ways. For many of us the Advent season brings joyful and eager anticipation. We long for Jesus to be born anew in our hearts, reigniting flames of faith that have dwindled over the last several months. With Jesus’ birth comes new possibilities, new opportunities, and new hope. But for some of us, the Advent season is a time of anxiety and tension, and not necessarily because of the expectations of the Christmas season. No, we realize that with new life often comes death of old life. It is the great circle of life unfolding before us with the start of a new season and a new year and a new hope in Jesus. The old makes way for the new and this can be a source of great anxiety for some of us. It is true that the Advent season is both a time of renewal and a time of destruction. Jesus will enter into our world and in so doing will conquer the powers of sin and death. The light will destroy the darkness. Life and death, renewal and destruction…these forces are in tension with each other throughout the season.
In this brief time before the Advent season we are called to consider these forces as we hear in our readings for this morning. We are called to be diligent in preparing for the coming of our Lord. In our first reading, the prophet Malachi warns that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up.” Jesus IS coming and the darkness WILL be overcome. Arrogance and evil WILL be destroyed by our Lord. We must heed Paul’s wisdom, as given to the Thessalonians in our second reading, “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from [Paul and his followers].” Jesus is coming and with him will come judgment—judgment on the arrogant, judgment on the evil, and judgment on the idle. We mustn’t wait in idleness and arrogance, overcome by evil in this world. We must wait with purpose, humility, and goodness towards our neighbors. We must wait in a manner that frees us from fear of Jesus’ judgment. If we wait with purpose, humility, and goodness, what is there to fear with the coming of our Lord?
In our gospel reading, Jesus speaks of a time “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” He assures his disciples and us, “do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Jesus doesn’t want us to live in fear as we await his return. Jesus wants us to eagerly anticipate his return. Jesus wants us to live so that we have nothing to be ashamed of. In other words, Jesus wants us to live with righteousness as we await his return.
Righteousness…what does it mean to live in righteousness? Though all of our readings serve to prepare us for the coming of our Lord, they also raise this concept of righteousness. In first reading, Malachi proclaimed, “but for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” In our psalm for today, we heard David sing, “O Lord, you have made known your victory, you have revealed your righteousness in the sight of the nations” and “The Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Even Paul closed our passage from his letter to the Thessalonians with, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” So how are we to understand righteousness, at least according to God’s Word? How do we live in righteousness as we await the coming of our Lord?
To help answer these questions, let me lift up an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” What I like about this proverb is that it illustrates how righteousness is relational. We don’t know how to be righteous outside of relationships. We need relationships to understand righteousness. It starts in our relationships with God and develops in our relationships with ourselves and is finally realized in our relationships with others. God is pure righteousness. God is ideal righteousness. He is always doing what is right and His righteousness is the standard by which we mold our relationships with ourselves and each other. God is good and merciful and just. When we allow God into our hearts, we welcome goodness, mercy, and justice in as well. We use this goodness and mercy and justice in relating to ourselves and each other. Alas, we are sinful creatures and don’t always share goodness and mercy and justice with ourselves or others. We aren’t fully righteous in our relationships but we can certainly strive to mimic the righteousness of God.
So God is the only truly righteous entity—only God does what is right all the time. But how does that help us to live in righteousness? To answer this question, we have to remember that Jesus has already come to us and has already conquered quite a lot for us. Jesus came and died and was resurrected so that we are no longer slaves to sin and death. Faith in Jesus and what Jesus has already done for us is what allows us to live in righteousness. When we have faith in Jesus and what he has done for us, we are armored with a “breastplate of righteousness” as Paul explains elsewhere in Scripture. Through faith, Jesus guards our hearts from the evils of this world and justifies us before the Father. A dictionary definition of “righteousness” is “morally right or justified.” I’m not going to claim I know what is right and what is wrong all the time. Only Jesus can make that claim. But my life can be justified by faith in Jesus. My life has a purpose if only to serve Jesus, a truly righteous person.
So as we prepare to close out the year and enter into the season of new birth, let us not fret over whether we are worthy of God’s goodness, mercy, and justice. We are not righteous like God is righteous but we can certainly become righteous through faith in Christ. Through faith, Christ enters into our hearts and enables us to share goodness, mercy, and justice with both ourselves and others. Let us give thanks and rejoice for God’s good gift of…a right spirit within.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.