November 29, 2929 1st Sunday of Advent HOPE
“Watching and Waiting” Mark 13:24-3
The gospel lesson today this morning is known as “The Little Apocalypse” and appropriate to begin Advent. As we begin to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, its all too easy to approach Christmas as nothing more than Jesus’ history. It is indeed that, but isolated from the rest of God’s salvation story, Christmas becomes just the commemoration of a historical event 2020 years ago. Its hope is confined to the honoring of a newborn babe and the promise of each new human life before it experiences the pain and disappointment of growing up. Surely there is something of value in those elements of Christmas that people of any faith can relate. Mark 13 however, reminds us that there is something about the story of Christmas that cannot be affirmed by any but those who recognize Christ as Lord. A star rises and obediently leads the Wise Men to the one whose second advent will cause the stars to fall. Angels herald his arrival to shepherds who dwell on the edge of civilization in anticipation of their duty to gather the elect from the four winds when he comes again.
The things that scare us the most are the things we don’t know. Have ever waited in fear and dread for something to happen and been relieved when it finally does? One of the hardest things for those who go into a hospital for tests is waiting for the results. If the news is bad, they can deal with it. They can start planning with the doctor how to treat the problem. That doesn’t minimize the grief and pain of the bad news, but knowing what to expect takes away some of the paralyzing fear.
That’s why Jesus, just before his crucifixion, described what it was going to be like before he comes. He described wars, earthquakes, famine, and persecution. He did not describe his coming again in order to instill terror. He told about it in order to relieve fear. If you know what to expect you won’t live in fear. If you know that even the end of the world is something which God has control than how can you be afraid of anything else?
If God holds the course of the heavens and the earth in his hands, how can we think the things that trouble us are too big for God? When the prophet Isaiah felt God’s absence in his life, when sickness and evil and despair seemed to have the upper hand, he did not tremble in fear. He cried out to God. He trusted that God was there even if he was hidden. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake with your presence,” he cried (Is. 64:1). Isn’t that our cry when we are overcome by all the fears that paralyze us: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down-to heal my body, to restore my marriage, to lift me out of despair? O that you would come down to bring peace to the world, to put an end to the earthquakes and killer hurricanes, to keep babies from dying of hunger.”
It is not too much for God, who orders the stars in their place and can bring order to the chaos of our lives. That’s why Jesus gave this vivid description of the course of the universe just before going to the cross. He was telling us who he is. The same one who throws the galaxies at each other is the same one who went into a 12- year old girl’s room with her parents, spoke to her, and told her to get up from her death bed. He is the same one who called some fishermen from their boats and gave them a part in his eternal plan of calling people to eternal life. He is the one who fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind, and cleansed the lepers; the same one who experienced life just as we do, except without sin; the same one who submitted himself to the brunt of evil on the cross. He’s the same one who watches the stars burst into being, and the one who set aside glory and majesty of the galaxies and came to us in Bethlehem.
So, Jesus told us to watch and wait until he returns. But waiting and watching doesn’t mean counting the days until the end. Watching and waiting doesn’t mean trying to correlate the book of Revelation to an earthquake in Turkey, a volcanic eruption in Italy, or reading the predictions of Nostradamus in a supermarket tabloid. Jesus compared our waiting to that of a servant whose master went on a long trip. Each servant had a job to do until the master returned. If the servants spent all their time looking out the window and trying to guess when the master would return, the house would be a mess when he arrived. Proper waiting means keeping the house in order so that when the Master does show up, things will be ready. Waiting, for us, means showing the world that in Christ we have nothing to fear. In fact, The New York Times carried a front-page photograph from the Hubbell Space Telescope. Called “Things That Go Bump in the Night,” it was a picture of two galaxies in the constellation Canis Major streaming gas, dust, and stars and colliding with each other. Each of the galaxies is 100,000 light years across. That means that it would take a beam of light traveling at 186,000 miles per second 100,000 years to go from one end of one of these galaxies to the other end of the same galaxy. Because it took the light from those galaxies millions of years to reach the Earth, they have probably already collided with each other in a cataclysm that is beyond description. What we see in a time delay of several million years, God sees in real time. God sees us looking for the first time at something God finished millions of years ago. So, the words of Mark do not sound so far-fetched. The Astrophysics has shown us that such events are probably happening somewhere in the universe all the time. But Jesus’ point was not that he knew something it has taken astronomers 2000 years to discover. His point was that nothing is outside of God’s domain. Even when those things we count on for stability start to fall apart, when the moon and the sun and the stars run their course, the one who made them is still in charge. The end of the world as we know is approaching, but that is not bad news. It is good news. God’s plan is running its course. Jesus will restore the universe to how it is supposed to be—a place where there is no such thing as greed and anger or hatred and suffering.
Anyone of us can see that the universe is vast and a complex place. You could go to the Hubbell Conservatory Web site and download thousands of pictures that make your jaw drop with awe at the vastness of outer space. But only by faith can we know the one who is behind it all.
In Jesus we know that everything, from the infinite vastness of the cosmos to the intricate secrets of our hearts, belongs to God. We don’t have to fear anything. Jesus may not come according to our timetable, but he will come. And he will be right on time.
The church has preserved and repeated the urgency of Jesus’ warning, “take heed, watch, for you do not know when the time will come” (13:33). You see no one warns the night watchman to “stay awake!” unless it looks like he is getting sleepy. And so the church kept Jesus’ call to watchfulness alive in their memory and in their worship, not because they had no problem with hope, but precisely because they have difficulty hoping. Even a warning from the lips of Jesus cannot keep us vigilant, expectant, and hopeful forever. To be blunt, we cannot “take heed and watch,” no matter who told us to do it, when nothing ever happens. No doubt the writer of Mark knew this, and that’s why, when he wrote these words, he recorded two other words of Jesus as well.
The first is simple: “of the day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). What this means, is that God’s future will not arrive when we want it, plan it, or even think we need it. It will come, not according to our timetable, but in its own good time, in God’s own good time. The coming kingdom is a promise and it cannot be turned into a set of predictions, it cannot be manipulated or domesticated into an agenda or reduced to a doctrine of progress. God does not provide happy endings for the future we are engineering. God provides a future beyond our knowledge and control and not even the angels in heaven know the hour.
But even with this caution against wanting to know too much, we are still left with too little. We still have questions of how to hope in the meantime, when nothing ever happens. And that’s why the writer of Mark remembered the other word which Jesus spoke. This word was a story, a parable actually, about a man who went on a trip and left his servants to manage the house while he was gone. What Jesus said about the servants is true also of the church; we need to be constantly on the lookout. The house can never be in disarray, because, as Jesus said, “You don’t know when the master will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at the crack of dawn-lest he comes suddenly and finds you asleep.” (35-36).
Mark hears something different, something more, in this word. The master could come “in the evening,” and in the very next chapter, he tells us that “when it was evening” Jesus ate his last meal with the disciples and told them, “one of you will betray me.”
Or the master could come “at midnight,” and Mark records that later that night the disciples went with Jesus to Gethsemane. While Jesus prayed his cry of anguish, the disciples, out of doubt tired of waiting, slept. “Could you not watch one hour?” he said to them.
Perhaps the master will come “at cockcrow, the crack of dawn,” and Peter returned to the accusing woman with a curse and denial, “I do not know this man.” The cock crowed. Maybe the coming of the master will be “in the morning, “and as soon as it was morning,” Jesus was bound and led away to his trial and death.
Mark has heard in Jesus’ story, and has woven into the fabric of his gospel, every moment of the passing day and is already alive with the promise of God’s future. As the Church strains its sight toward the horizon of the coming kingdom, it also hears the ticking of the clock on the wall, and knows that each passing minute is filled with the potential for faith or denial, decision or tragedy, hope or despair. Those who trust in the promise of God’s coming kingdom are also able to see advanced signs of its coming all around. Those who believe that in God’s good time, something is about to happen, also know that even now, something is happening! Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that every moment of the church’s life is formed by the expectation that something is about to happen, and this something has to do with God’s coming in power to the world. Every time Christians recite the old phrase in the creed, “he will come to judge the quick and the dead,” we disclose our hope that frail human justice, the kind one gets with a good lawyer and a full checkbook, is not all the justice life holds. Come, Lord Jesus. Every time we create a giving tree or food pantry for those in need, we do so not because we are so naïve as to think a few pair of socks, a can of soup and a box of cereal are going to end human need. We do so because we live today in the light of God’s tomorrow, when all will be clothed in garments of light and the banquet table of the kingdom will hold a feast. Come, Lord Jesus. Every time we struggle to our feet to sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” we are praying for, expecting something to happen, some one to happen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Praying too, is grounded in hope that something is about to happen. There is a Hasidic story about a devout man who worked in a slaughterhouse. His work required him to say a prayer for mercy before killing each beast. Every morning with tears in his eyes he said goodbye to his family before going to work because he was persuaded that his ritual prayer led him into great danger. He feared that, after he called upon God, God might come back with force before he could not finish his prayer with “have mercy.” This is a harsh truth, but a truth nonetheless. All prayer is based on the confident hope that something is about to happen.
I once taught a confirmation class and in one session I was teaching about the festivals and seasons of the Christian year. When we came to the discussion of Pentecost, I asked them if they knew what that was. Since none of them knew, I told them Pentecost was “when the church was a group of people when the Holy Spirit landed on them like tongues of fire on their heads. Then they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world. Two of the girls took this information in stride, but one of them looked amazed. Her eyes were wide open. Finally, she said, “Gosh Pastor, we must have been absent that Sunday.” The beauty of the moment was not that she misunderstood Pentecost, but that she understood about the Church. In her mind, there was the possibility that Pentecost could have happened, even in our Sunday service. Its ok to get the feeling here, like nowhere else, and you should, that something is about to happen. Come, Lord Jesus.
It was the Lord himself, who said, “What I say to you I say to all. Watch.”
It’s important to note that in nearly all of Christ’s sayings the object toward which we are to direct our watchfulness is not His future appearing but our present state and present task. The crisis may come at any time, yet the way to prepare for it is not to be all the time on the lookout for it, but rather attend to the work we have in hand that our Lord, when He come will find us doing His will. The true state of Christian readiness doesn’t consist of being constantly keyed up to a nervous expectation, either of our own last hour or at the end of the world. It consists of a calm fulfillment of each duty as it comes to us; an the best preparation for the next demand that may be made on us is the punctual and conscientious fulfillment of the demand that is being made upon us right now
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. We are reminded that its time to prepare for the coming of Christ. In less than a month we will be celebrating the birth of Jesus. But for the church through the ages, this time of year has meant more than just a nice memory of a romantic birth in a stable. It has meant the Lord has come and that he has promised to come again. It means that as God prepared the world for the first advent, so he wants to prepare us for the second advent. That final coming will be accompanied by cosmic upheaval; but until then God’s people are to “keep awake” by staying active in service to others, so that having seen the Lord in “the least of these, his sisters and brothers,” we shall recognize him for who he really is—the one who said, “And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake” – watch. Come Lord Jesus, come.
Closing Prayer: Holy God we praise you for all those in every generation who have been faithful in the telling of your word so that we might know the fulness of the gospel in our time—your Holy word mighty and redeeming. We know our existence depends on you and your self-giving presence to our every need. But sometimes we are insensitive to your coming—we are blind to all the signs of your presence. The gospel proclaims that you are present to each one of us in the greatest way that you can be—you so loved the world that you have given your only Son. If there is any reticence and insensitivity—it is in us. You are always there to give but we sometimes are unwilling to receive. We are aware of the blessedness of giving, so then let us not miss the blessedness of receiving as we give from out of our abundance. Today we respond to the beauty all around us in lights and decorations in music and expectations. But let us not forget, O Lord, that the origin of all joy is your love and self-giving made now completely in Jesus Christ. Teach us to be still and watchful and to wait and get in touch with the joy. This advent let the true spirit of Christmas begin in us and gradually take over the world, converting hate to love, greed to generosity, ignorance to enlightenment, and strife to peace. Touch the sick with healing. Grant mercy to who know it not. Bless the broken hearted and let the song of angels be our song, as we draw together in the name of him who was born and died in Judea to save the world from sin, Jesus Christ Lord who taught us each to pray, Our Father…