Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sermon, Advent 1B, Mark 13:24-37

Happy New Year!

Today is the first Sunday of the new Church year. Advent is the season of new beginnings. It is that time of year when we look forward to the coming of Christ; both his arrival in the manger, and his arrival at some unknown point in the future. And we enter the season of Advent like we enter every new year -- with a sense of expectation and change.

The first gospel passage we hear in this new year comes from Mark. We don't waste any time in the expectation department as this passage is the second half of Mark's apocalypse. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus tells us that we will be faced with false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, beatings, trials and martyrdoms. In other words, things are going to get a whole lot worse. That end of the world scenario, however, is only a precursor to today's passage.

Jesus says that it will be after those things when the sun will be darkened, the moon won't give light, stars will fall and heaven will shake. So after things get bad, and after things get worse, things will get worse yet as the entire cosmos shakes and shudders and begins to fail. These are the times that try men's souls and are not for the faint of heart.

Jesus lays out this scenario for us and says that when we see these things we will know he is near. But what does that mean? How are we to interpret this statement of his where he ties his unspecified return to specific events?

There are those who read this and get all excited about pinning down the exact time of Jesus' return. They look at world events, trying to figure out which nation is Gog and which nation is Magog, finding the anti-Christ of the day, while gleefully predicting the end of the world in the "near future" (having learned their lesson from all the other failed determinations) with a sure and certain hope that those they have determined as righteous will be saved, while those they have classified as sinners will be sent to hell.

They do this, I think, because they are more interested in there than here. One problem with this belief or theology or understanding, however, is that it can lead to the attitude of, "Why should we care about .... the earth ... the poor ..... reconciliation ..... working towards peace ..... if Jesus is going to return and wipe it all out anyway?"

Another problem with this is that it has the audacity to claim to know more than Jesus; or at least claim to know as much as God. People read the signs from wars and natural disasters like a fortune teller reads tarot cards or tea leaves, and then they back it up with various and detailed proof-texts from the Bible claiming that the answer is right there in black and white. They would do well to remember that "about that day or hour, no one knows."

I am not so sure we can say that these portents mean Jesus is near to returning; but I am sure that we can say Jesus is near to us. As a friend or loved one is near to us even when separated from us, so too is Jesus near to us.

Jesus isn't only near to us when things are going well. It isn't only Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, or when we are being fed, or when we are being congratulated for jobs well-done that he is near to us. He's also near to us when things are going poorly. He is near to us in times of war. He is near to us when wildfires rage around us. He is near to us when tornadoes and hurricanes swoop down from the sky and tear lives apart. He is near to us when people fly planes into buildings. "So also when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near . . ."

It seems to me that the big question is, "When will Jesus return?" Or maybe it's, "Can we believe that Jesus will return?"

I think there are two ways to look at this. First, can we believe in a literal return of Christ? I don't see why not. If we believe that Jesus is God, and that God doesn't lie, then we can certainly believe he's telling the truth about his return at some point in the future. But we cannot sit here mired in doom and gloom waiting for Jesus and his calvary of angels to come riding into town and saving us from all the wars, false messiahs and natural disasters.

Just like the servants of the man going on a journey were put in charge of the household until his return, we are in charge until Jesus chooses to return. The servants have a house to care for, things to clean up, food to make, and a myriad of other tasks to be done. They don't simply plop down on the couch and watch ESPN until the master returns. Likewise, we have a world to care for, things to clean up, people to feed, and a myriad of other tasks to be done. We can't simply idly wait by for the Big Bail Out from heaven. Jesus will return at some point, but until then, we have work to do.

Second, can we believe in an experiential return? I don't see why not. Jesus is near to us in the good, the bad, and the everyday. When we look out into the world and see . . . life . . . he is near to us. Are we making the effort to find Jesus in the everyday? Things happen in our lives. Things happen here. As a parish, our congregation is growing and active. As one of those new people, I hope you have found a home in the body of Christ. We help at the food bank and deliver meals. We reach out to the community through ecumenical services and welcoming programs. Like the fig tree begins to bloom and grow, can you see blooming and growth in your own life? Do you see Jesus returning to be with you in both the good and the bad?

And in both cases, the literal and the experiential, we must remain watchful if we are to see it.

Advent is the season of expectation and change. We expect the coming of the Messiah -- both in the manger and at some unknown time in the future. That baby eventually changed the world. That man has the ability to change us.

What are we expecting this Advent? Are we expecting the picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell Christmas? I would hope that we are expecting the arrival of Jesus. This Advent, maybe you can consciously work to avoid the expectations of Madison Avenue and look to see how you might be better prepared for the coming of Christ. And then, having adjusted your expectations, think about how you will be changed by his arrival.

May your Advent be one of watchful expectation, and may you know that Jesus is near.


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