Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent on Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
Today marks the beginning of another season of Advent, that period of watchfulness, of renewed waiting, that begins the church year. This Sunday’s readings – the readings appointed for the first Sunday of Advent – remind us that the season of Advent is not just about, nor even chiefly about, getting ready for Christmas. Indeed, I’ve long felt that it was rather artificial, Advent after Advent, to act as if we were looking “forward” to Christ’s first coming in humility as a baby born in Bethlehem. Putting ourselves in the position of those who, more than 2,000 years ago, were anticipating the coming of a Messiah and acting as if we were yearning for the baby yet to be born has long seemed to me to be a kind of play-acting, of holy “make believe.”
The readings appointed for this Sunday, starting off this Advent, however, remind us of that for which we are indeed still waiting, that for which we need very much to get ready – Christ’s coming again in glory.
“O that You would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at Your presence!” (Isa 64:1)
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (Mk 13:26)
“What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mk 13:37)
If we find that Christmas is upon us this year and we’re not altogether ready for it, it won’t be the end of the world. But if Christ’s coming again finds us unprepared, living as people who haven’t been looking for it, well … that’s another story, isn’t it? Advent is our wake-up call to what is coming, to Who is coming, rousing us to shake off our sleep and restore our souls to vigilance. And we cannot afford to keep hitting the snooze button on this alarm.
Preparations for Christmas tend to overwhelm Advent, to bury beneath an avalanche of gift-buying, travel-planning, cantata-preparing, menu-mapping, and home-decorating what Advent, as a gift of the liturgical year, seeks to give to us – a chance to examine ourselves and to realign our lives, both as individual disciples and as a church family, so that we will move this year toward greater readiness to meet our Lord at his coming in glory to judge the living and the dead. So let’s pause together and unwrap these two texts, and see if, perhaps, they might help us to receive this gift of Advent and make the best use possible of it, rather than set it aside in favor of our Christmas preparations.
The passage we heard from Isaiah 64 really begins in the previous chapter. The prophet tells once again the familiar story of Israel. God showed them great favor, leading them out of Egypt and into the land of promise. Rather than keep faith with God by living as he commanded in his covenant, they rebelled against God and God’s Law, so that God brought upon them the punishments that God had promised – destruction and exile. And now things are simply not the way they were meant to be. God’s chosen people are not walking in God’s ways and relishing God’s presence; Israel is not experiencing the promises that had been extended to it. It’s all just wrong. How can God stand it, Isaiah asks? How can he not simply “tear open the heavens and come down” and set everything right, the way it ought to be?
And, indeed, we might ask the same questions – perhaps not on our own behalf (though we, too, have no doubt had our moments), but on behalf of the many who have suffered significantly due to the evil or callousness of others. And we can be sure that the blood of the innocent cries out with these words before the throne of God day and night – “O that You would tear open the heavens and come down!” – the blood of a young family killed during a house robbery; the blood of countless children dead or maimed by the violence of mercenaries in Africa or land mines in abandoned war zones; the blood of a young woman raped and killed; the blood of generations who died as slaves; the blood of thousands who disappeared as a totalitarian regime protected its interests against potential dissenters; the blood of those who died simply because others refused to share with them the gifts that God intended for all. Iraqi Christians, refugees from the Islamic State, are crying out this prayer today; a Nigerian Christian woman and her children, whose husband and father was lynched in the street, are crying out this prayer today; Christians in the wake of the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, are crying out this prayer today. How can it be that Christ will not come, that a God whose heart is justice itself should not bring all to account before Him?
Now I’m not one to ignore elephants in the room. It’s been about 1,987 years since Jesus uttered the words we heard read from Mark’s Gospel today, and he still hasn’t come back. This raises some difficult, but legitimate questions. First, if God is going to tear open the heavens, if the Son of Man is going to descend upon the clouds surrounded by the hosts of heaven, why hasn’t he? Second, if he hasn’t in the last 1,987 years or so, why should we be concerned this year or next or the year after that, that he will? How important a compass point for us can this “coming again” still be? Of all the things for which we might spend our lives getting ready, why should we say that this one is still so important that it should be placed at the top of our list of priority events for which to be prepared?
We all need to solve these questions for ourselves. My own solution to the second question is not theologically profound, but one of simple math. I figure that, at the absolute maximum, I have forty or forty-five years of life left (and that’s, in all probability, high-balling the figure). If Jesus hasn’t returned within that time frame, I shall certainly go to him before the end of it. And the next thing I expect to see after death closes my eyes is the scene portrayed for us at the beginning of today’s reading from Mark 13:
“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
And it won’t much matter to me how much time elapses between death closing my eyes and the last trumpet opening them again. Jesus’ coming again is, for me, at most the rest of my lifetime away.
As for the first question, it seems to me that God will only tear open the heavens and come down when one of a few possible conditions has been reached. One condition would be that God has seen positively accomplished on this earth and in the human story all that God has wanted to see accomplished, such that there is no longer any good left to come from delaying. Another condition would be that God has given up hope on humanity in general and sees that his church has exhausted its ability or its willingness to mediate his deliverance further to the people of this world, such that there is no longer any good left to come from delaying. The day on which God chooses to “tear open the heavens and come down,” when “the Son of Man” will be seen “coming in the clouds,” will indeed at last mean justice for every soul, bringing to each either vindication or condemnation. But: every day on which God does not tear open the heavens means opportunity for every soul.
I’m not speaking here just of an opportunity to “get saved” or “accept Jesus” or any such pale shadow of what God seeks from each one of us. I mean here an opportunity to do the work that our Lord has entrusted to us – to each one of us as a disciple, to all of us as a congregation, and to all congregations together as the global Body of Christ.
“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:32-37 NRSV)
This last sentence is one point in Mark’s Gospel where we find Jesus himself thinking beyond his immediate circle of hearers, namely his disciples who have gathered around him on the Mount of Olives for this teaching, and thinking about the many who will hear him through them. We can almost see and hear Jesus at this point speaking to us, looking past his disciples and directly into the camera, as it were, at us to deliver this admonition: “Keep awake!”
The question for us in this interim is not “how long will it be?” or, heaven forbid, “can we figure out exactly when it will be?” It is also not “Why isn’t God doing anything to help? To make things better? To make it easier for us to believe and to invest ourselves in his work?” The question for us is, are we doing the work that Jesus has entrusted to us like servants who hope to be found faithfully and diligently doing that work when he returns? Or are we doing our own work, attending to our own agendas, seeking our own interests, making up our own list of things to do each day that have little or nothing to do with the work that God has laid upon us to do? Servants cannot afford to act that way: servants must attend first and foremost to the work the master has given them, and then to their own interests only as time permits – not the reverse.
When Christ comes, he will encounter each one of us as either part of the problem or part of the solution in regard to the ills that beset this world. There will be no middle ground – and those who stand on the sidelines watching the ills that beset the world, shaking their heads, and complaining that God isn’t doing anything about it are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
What, then, is the work that the master has laid upon us, to occupy us in this interim? This church’s mission statement actually captures this pretty well. God wants for us to know him, to live fully in relationship with him and in response to him. God wants for us to grow into the person that he is re-creating us to be through the working of God’s Holy Spirit in our midst – to be changed from self-centered and self-driven people into other-centered and Spirit-driven people whose joy it is to do what pleases God. God wants for us to go out to bear witness to and extend his kingdom, his hope, his love, his provision, his justice everywhere that there is need. We can say so much about the work generally; each one of us has to discern our particular tasks toward attaining these ends. Scripture is an indispensable and inexhaustible resource for us in this process of discernment. Every page reveals something about the character, the heart, the driving passions of the God we serve. Every page reveals something to us about the character, heart, and driving passions of the people that Jesus died to empower us to become. Every page has something to say about how to invest ourselves in real-world actions that will advance what God wants to accomplish through us.
Jesus’ word to us this Advent, Jesus’ word to us today, is that those who wake up to understand and pursue these things, who refuse to be as one asleep to God or to God’s purposes for us any longer, are indeed favored. He invites us to renewed attentiveness – to watchfulness – in regard to this work of knowing, growing, and going as he desires and directs day by day by day. He invites us to put at the top of our list of things to do: his list of things to do.
The question that his coming again will pose to each one us when we lay eyes upon him is this: Did your life show my death to be worthwhile? Did you devote your individual lives and your common life together to everything that my death opened up for you, and did you diligently discharge the responsibility that my death placed upon you – to live no longer for yourself, but for the one who died and was raised on your behalf?
The first gift of Christmas is this gift of Advent – the gift of an opportunity to ask ourselves these questions and work to realign ourselves such that we will be better able to answer “yes” in the coming year than we were in the year that is now past. And when we can answer “yes,” then we will be living as people who are fully awake, rather than still asleep to what’s really important in this world, for this life.
As we close our service after communion today singing the familiar hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I would invite you not to sing it as we might imagine the people of ancient Judea singing out their prayers for a Messiah who would come to deliver them, nor as if the object of this hymn – this prayer – was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus so long ago. I would invite you, instead, to sing it to the Christ who sits enthroned at God’s right hand, whose coming again in glory we confess as a pillar of our faith, and whose future interventions we count on for the fulfillment of our hope. I would invite you to sing it as people who are newly committed so to live and invest yourselves that you will have no cause for shame, and he no cause for disappointment, when he does come in fulfillment of his word.