In one of his most memorable descriptions of Methodist beliefs, John Wesley once compared Christian salvation to a house. The house itself is salvation in Jesus Christ, made possible by God’s grace and not something we can earn or work our way into. The porch, where you approach the house, is repentance. The door, where you enter the house, is faith in Jesus Christ. And the interior of the house, where you live, is sanctification—growing in holiness. The point is, you can’t claim to be saved just because you feel sorry for your sins, or just because you have faith, but no works, in Jesus. You need the whole house, the whole picture, because salvation is about more than how you feel—it’s about how you respond to God.
In the next few weeks, once we’ve recovered from Thanksgiving, most of us will be spending time getting our houses in order. We will vacuum and clean for guests and family who come to visit. We will pull out decorations and ornaments. We will buy Christmas trees, or put together the artificial trees we already own, and we will deck them with our little treasures. Maybe we’ll hang lights on the trees or even on the outside of our houses. Most of us will probably also bake more than we do in a normal month, adding delightful smells to the seasonal colors and sights that spice up our homes. December is a time for getting our houses in order.
And, really, that’s what Advent is about, too: getting our house in order, the house of our salvation. For some, that means committing to the house in the first place. You haven’t repented, you don’t have faith yet, but God’s grace is reaching out to you, calling you to approach his mercy and love. For others, it means moving further into the house. You’ve crossed the porch and you stand in the doorway; you have faith, you believe in God, but there’s very little about your life that has changed. Maybe you’ve been satisfied with that for a while, or maybe somebody once told you that all you need is a relationship with Jesus and then everything will be fine, or that you don’t need to do anything once you “feel” saved. But salvation is the whole house, not just the doorway, not just faith. Salvation includes growing in holiness. Sanctification is not an unnecessary addition but an essential part of being a Christian.
Many of us here, however, have crossed the porch and entered through the door. For us, and for those of us still hanging out in the doorway of faith, it’s time for us to put our houses in order by refocusing our lives on holiness.
You see, Advent is a season of waiting. A month ago stores put out their Christmas holiday decorations; they couldn’t wait for the season to begin. A week ago my neighbors started hanging lights and inflating snowmen and reindeer and all sorts of yard decorations; they couldn’t wait, either. But here at Centre, today we begin Advent. We are waiting. We are waiting to celebrate Christmas. And we are waiting for the return of our King.
Not that we like waiting any more than anyone else. When we think of waiting, we think of places like the DMV, where we take a ticket with a number on it, sit down on an uncomfortable bench, and… wait. And wait. And wait some more. Every minute, every second, feels like a waste, like a part of life that we will never get back.
That’s not biblical waiting. Waiting, according to Scripture, is what Paul is talking about in the passage from 1 Thessalonians that we read just a couple minutes ago. Biblical waiting is not sitting around, wasting our time. Biblical waiting is the season of preparation, the season of getting things in order. The season of waiting is a gift from God himself, who gives us time to prepare, to make way for the Lord, to straighten the chairs, set out the best china, get everything ready for his arrival, his advent. Paul writes to the Thessalonians in a context of waiting: Paul has been waiting for word about the state of the church in Thessoloniki, which Timothy brings, and the Thessalonians have been waiting also, perhaps to see Paul again one day, but certainly for the return of their Savior Jesus Christ. The letter of 1 Thessalonians, which Paul sends them, is to encourage them in their waiting: in this time of waiting, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Increasing in love, strengthening in holiness: that is why we are given time to wait. This is sanctification. Waiting is for us to put our house of salvation in order, to take steps we’ve avoided before, and to concentrate on what we’ve neglected to this point. And that is why we celebrate a season of Advent before we celebrate Christmas. When our Lord comes, whether as a child in the manger or a king with all his saints, we want to be ready.
There are other ways of waiting, of course. Impatient waiting. Wasting time through distracted waiting. But the one most opposite faithful, biblical waiting is fearful waiting. Fearful waiting is what tells us, in haunting whispers, that something awful could happen at any moment, that we could be the next victims. Fearful waiting is what tells us that we need to protect ourselves, maybe even at any cost, from the awful things that stand just outside our door. Fearful waiting tells us to lock our doors, to eye our neighbors suspiciously, to assume that everyone—everyone except those who are like us, of course—is a threat until they prove otherwise. Some politicians have been very good at driving us to wait fearfully, sowing evil thoughts in our hearts by trying to make us believe that people who are fleeing real terror and real violence and real horror should be shut out, forced into camps or back into war zones, and listed by the government because you just don’t know what might happen.
Holiness takes courage. There’s a reason Paul prays that God will strengthen our hearts in holiness. Because holiness is not about running away from scary things; it’s not about shutting out the awful, threatening world; it’s not about escaping to our nice feelings of being close to God. All of those are just forms of cowardice, of living in fear, of imitating the cowardice of politicians who benefit when we’re afraid.
Holiness takes courage because God is holy. And the places of holiness in the Bible are not where God is furthest from this world but where God is closest. The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and the temple was holy because God was closer there than anywhere else. And our Holy of Holies, Jesus Christ, is Emmanuel, God with us, God so close to us that he has flesh and blood and a mother. In his holiness, God comes closer and closer to us, even though we have been God’s enemies, even though we have rejected God’s covenant love, even though we live in a world where out of love God could come as close as Jesus and we would want to kill him. God’s holiness is risky, risk-taking holiness. It’s not safe, it’s not a sure bet, it’s not holed up in some fortress. It’s exposed, weak by our standards, able to be hurt and rejected.
As we wait this Advent for our Savior Jesus Christ, we need to put our houses in order. If you have not approached the house of salvation, the invitation is here. Come, respond to God’s grace. Repent of your sins, have faith in Jesus. And if you have lived in this house for a while, whether in the doorway or deep inside the house, take the time to seek true holiness. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Welcome the stranger. Draw closer to those in need, just as Christ draws close to us. May you increase in love for each other and for all. And may your hearts strengthen in holiness, that you may be blameless before God our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus. O come, o come Emmanuel.