Rev. Jim Zazzera, 11.27.2011
Faith Presbyterian Church
Protestors Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Campuses, Occupy Parks, and Occupy Cities. Many people yearn for a better world – though they are not sure exactly what or how. European nations desperately try to dig their way out of financial crises — with no clear idea of what or who will solve their issues. Middle Eastern revolutions happen with great earnestness and then topple toward failure— when it gets down to the business of running a country. Congressional super committees seek to agree on a wise and responsible future for our nation— but no level of consequence seems to break through the impasse.
So what happens when our world collapses? What happens when all human creations and designs fail? What happens when all our efforts to create a just and loving planet implode?
What happens when all we can do is wonder what comes next? What happens when the old has crumbled – and the new thing is not yet here? What happens in the meantime?
As Christians, we want some degree of hope about our world and out lives. As people of God, we want some level of assurance. But how do we know that God is in charge? What are the signs?
At the core, in all its mystery, this is what today’s Bible reading is about. Jesus is assuring us that God is in charge. Christ is reminding us not to panic. Our Savior offers words of hope to people who are finding them hard to come by.
The first readers of this story would have understood well much of what Jesus was talking about. You see, Christians in the first century were already getting in big trouble and facing persecution for calling Jesus their Lord and Master instead of worshipping their Roman rulers. At that time, war was either on the horizon or already happening in the region, and the Jewish revolt against Rome between 66 – 70 A.D. would culminate in the destruction of the Jewish temple. This destruction of the temple by the Romans would be an abomination would cause the people of God great desolation and despair, as great as they had ever experienced. For Jewish people, including followers of Christ, the destruction of the temple ripped the heart our of their faith.
The temple was where everything centered, because in a way, that is where God was. So with the temple gone, where is God? We think maybe God will come, but what do we do in the meantime?
These words of Jesus, spoken a few decades before the events I have mentioned, anticipates all these concerns. These words of Jesus – were initially offered as assurance and warning to Jesus first 4 disciples as they considered the fate of the Jewish Temple and their future. These words of Jesus – later became words of hope to Christian people in times of crisis or despair.
Let me stop for a moment. I suspect you may find these questions jarring on this particular day. You may even find them inappropriate. Here we are… considering the beautiful signs and symbols of the coming of the gentle babe of Bethlehem We delight in trees, and candles, and poinsettias, and carols, and crèches and now we’ve got a preacher is forcing us to consider a more dramatic and cataclysmic coming of Christ in our midst
But let me explain something. You see, for some reason the Christian church has traditionally begun Advent with Jesus’ words about his second coming. (Trust me, I did not choose this passage because it is one of my favorite texts.) We are listening to it because the church in its wisdom has directed us to begin the Christian year here. As we consider Jesus’ first advent, his coming as a child, we are pushed to consider his second advent, his second coming. Here it is the first day of the Christian calendar and we are asked to talk about the end of history.
Perhaps is because God doesn’t want us to get confused before we even start. It is as if God is saying, this whole Jesus thing is not some sentimental story, it is not some Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul. These are not just simple words of comfort to wrap ourselves in. Jesus’ story is life changing. Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and coming again is really world changing stuff. This story Jesus tells has to do with individuals – but even more it has to do with all creation.
So cosmic signs and human conflict are more than appropriate on this day. Just as Jesus’ first coming, his birth, was marked by angels and stars; the second coming will also be marked with tumult in the heavens and angelic activity.
There is much to unpack in this passage, but let me simply focus on three things today.
The first thing is the most obvious and maybe the most difficult for the modern mind. Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus second coming is real, it is not simply a theological option. The Nicene Creed reminds us,
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” The ancient Eucharistic Prayer reads, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” What we believe about the second coming speaks volumes about what we believe about God. Do we believe it when we pray “thy kingdom come?” Do we believe it when we say God is involved in history? Do we believe that God is working now and somehow will bring a consummation to all the kingdom work being done in this world?
To believe those things is to believe in the Second Coming of Christ. When Jesus quotes the Old Testament book of Daniel saying that “you will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds” – he is talking about himself. For us to confess this is to confess that God is in charge of bringing history to its climax. For us to confess this to acknowledge that God will in fact rescue and remake this world.
The second thing is perhaps the clearest message of the text. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Throughout history many people have tried to predict the second coming of Christ. From early Christian writers, to Y2K prophets, to Harold Camping, many have simply ignored this particular part of the message Jesus gives and attempted to give us excruciating details of God’s future work.
But Jesus reminds us the even “the Son” has no clarity about this. Jesus himself, the very son of God, is saying that even he is not fully aware of when and how this will happen. You would think that would be good enough for us. Yet we go on guessing the details and predicting the future.
How we approach this concept also says a great deal about what we believe about God. Do we trust God to be in charge even when we don’t fully understand? Are we willing to put our lives in God’ hands without knowing all the details? As Jenny and the Bluegrass Band reminded us last week, can we trust that even though we don’t know what tomorrow holds, that it is our loving God “who holds tomorrow?”
Finally, at the heart of this passage is an unmistakably clear warning. “Beware, keep alert;” Jesus says, “ for you do not know when the time will come…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.”
Jesus tells these first four of his disciples, and by inference tells us, “stay awake.” It is a remarkably similar message to something Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church:
the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,”
then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…
Though we may not fully understand all the details – the message is clear – “be alert, for God is doing something in this world and in our lives.” If nothing else, this is our invitation to look for God. It is our encouragement to listen for the voice and see the actions of God around us.
Ironically, in what some think of as the holiest season of the year, that voice can be stilled and those actions can be ignored. I don’t need to list for you the ways our combative, materialistic, and self-centered world lulls us to sleep and separates us from God.
Though we think this is a passage about the coming of Christ at the end of time, it is really an encouragement about what to do while were waiting. It is really a guide for how to live in the meantime. You see, Jesus is less interested in giving us information about the future than he is about teaching us how to live in the present. He wants to show us how to live in the meantime.
While we are waiting…we are called to celebrate and remember that Jesus really is Lord of history. While we are waiting…we are reminded that we do not fully understand nor do we ever control the ways of God. While we are waiting…we are encouraged to an active waiting, to “stay awake,” to see the work of God in our midst. This is Christian life. This is life in the meantime.
Think of it this way. Our world is always crumbling in some way. Maybe it on a global level, maybe on a personal level. Take the personal perspective. When you face a serious illness,
can you trust that God will bring you ultimate healing (whatever that looks like)? Can you affirm that you will not always understand the workings of God? Can stay attentive to God’s work in your life each day? That is what Jesus is encouraging in us. That is what life in Christ gives us.
Take the global perspective. When we look at violence in so many places in our world, can we trust that God truly does work for justice and peace for all people? Can we acknowledge that we do not always discern the actions of God? Can we look, and ponder, and pray, that we might see God’s hand in healing creation? That is what Jesus is encouraging in us. That is what life in Christ gives us.
All the trappings of this season remind us that Christ has come, in the body of a infant. But all the affirmations of the church throughout history remind us that Christ will come again, in the midst of all our pain and chaos.
Let me end with a portion of a poem from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in which he reminds us of God’s presence in the midst of suffering in our lives:
You don’t believe that I am with you.
But I am there.
When you stop running from the pain
And turn to face it,
When you can step into the agony and let it be,
When you can turn to your own suffering and know its name,
Then you will see me.
You will see me in the heart of it with you.
It doesn’t matter if you body is wracked by pain
Or your mind is spiraling through aches and anguish.
When you stop running you will see me.
I will not forsake you.
I cannot abandon you.
You are not alone.
I am with you.
Jesus tells us the same and more. Wake up. My ways may be mysterious. But I am coming into your life. I am coming into this world. Amen.
Next Step Questions 11-27-2011
Can you think of a time where you were anticipating the arrival of someone who was important in your life? How did the waiting and anticipation affect you?
Have you ever really yearned for or looked forward to an event that was going to happen in your life? How did that looking ahead influence your behavior? Was it positive or negative?
Part of the ancient Christian communion liturgy goes, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Do you spend much time thinking about the second coming of Jesus? Why or why not? Would looking forward to that event change your life right now? In what way?
Why do you think they church has often included a passage like this on the first Sunday of Advent? Does this passage about the second coming of Jesus help us to understand his “first” coming at his birth?
Sometimes people talk about the Christian life as the “already/not yet.” In other words, God’s kingdom is among us, but not in its fullness; God is working, but God’s work is not yet complete. How does believing this affect our lives as Jesus’ followers?
Are there dangers of trying to discover out the “day and the hour” of the Lord’s coming? What are they? Are there dangers in ignoring the Lord’s coming? What are they?
Do you ever find yourself wishing you knew more about what God was up to? In what areas? Are there situations in which “not knowing” makes it hard to trust?
Jesus talks about “staying awake” to the coming of God into our lives. What kind of things “lull us to sleep,” or “blind” us to God’s presence? What are things we can do to “stay awake” to God’s presence?
One author writes, “Mark 13 speaks to those who expect too much and to those who expect too little. It is especially pertinent for those who have forgotten to expect anything at all.” What should we expect from God? In the present? In the future? What do you expect from God in your life?