Advent: When He Comes

First Sunday of Advent

[Note: This sermon is based on Isaiah 64:1 and Mark 13:24-37, lectionary texts for yesterday. I included those passages at the end, for ready reference.]

 

Not, “For unto a child is born, unto us a son is given…”; not “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me…” not, “The virgin will conceive and bear a son….” Rather, our very first words from scripture this Advent are these: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”

 

How is that for season’s greetings? “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” Can you picture that on the cover of your Christmas cards? That is the heart’s cry of a people who need God to act. But it wasn’t a call to escape. The Israelites had just returned home from their captivity in Babylon. They were thrilled to be home. Except, everything was in shambles. Nothing had been left in tact. Their captors destroyed the city walls, tore down the Temple, and left Jerusalem a mess. It was a wasteland, but they were home at last.

It would be something like the American commonwealth of Puerto Rico today. Over two months after Hurricane Maria hit it with devastating force, half the island’s residents are still without electricity. Hundreds have died. Many are fleeing to the mainland, including a family to Rochester in the past week.

Advent opens our hearts to what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will yet do. This season of preparation for Christmas is counter cultural. After Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday (add wacked out Wednesday for good measure), Advent says resist. We don’t need that new luxury car with a red bow on it. The season calls for slowing down and reflecting on great and wondrous things. It is for preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. And it begins with a teaching from Jesus about living in watchfulness and alertness.

I was raised in a church with an escape culture. In my childhood home church we believed that the Second Coming of Jesus was about escaping this wretched world. We were taught that there was a mysterious rapture coming, by which we would get out of here before all hell broke loose. After a while, this emphasis bothered me more and more.

Then I discovered a more biblical view: not escape but engagement. We are called to be in this world bearing good news. After all, “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son….” Rather than an escape strategy, God calls us to an engagement strategy, living as Jesus did, bearing good news amidst the messiness of the world.

Jesus said it clearly: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”

We want to be found doing our assignments, not looking to escape the house. When the master returns, can anything be better than that he finds us doing what he assigned us to do? As I read the news of the world, there is much to do in service to Jesus. Need is everywhere. We have been entrusted with good news to share.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

For twenty centuries faithful Christians have believed that they were living in the last days. And here we are in the 21st century reading these words of Jesus. For four decades I lived in eastern New York, not too far from where there once was great fervor about the return of Jesus. A student of the Bible named William Miller calculated that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When March 21, 1844, came and went and Jesus didn’t, they recalculated: April 18, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: July, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: August 10, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: October 22, 1844. They banked on that date. Some quit their jobs. They went to a mountaintop in the early morning and waited for Jesus. At the end of that day, they returned to their homes in sadness. October 22, 1844, was called the Great Disappointment.

During that very time, three notable people, people of faith, were living and working near where I now live in the greater Rochester area. One was Susan B. Anthony. She was working tirelessly for the full American citizenship of women. One was Frederick Douglass. He was working for the full American citizenship of African-Americans. The third was Benjamin T. Roberts. He was working tirelessly for the full citizenship of woman and blacks in the Church. Roberts Wesleyan College is named for him. He was as radical in working for the rights of women and blacks as Anthony and Douglass.

Let’s say Jesus had returned during that time. Would we rather be among those who climbed to a mountaintop to wait or those that were working for the rights of people that had long been denied their rights? I know which group I would want to be among: that group engaged with their world and working diligently on the assignments they had been given.

The coming of Jesus has at least three aspects to it. Jesus has come, born of Mary in Bethlehem. Jesus will return in glory someday known only to the Father. In between the first and second advents of Jesus, he keeps coming in myriad ways every day. It’s a time to be live in readiness, in watchfulness, and doing the work assigned to us. Be on guard! Be alert!”

An anonymous black American, living during that terrible time of our nation’s horrendous institution of human slavery, wrote this poem. It gives us perspective for faithful living today, in anticipation of that great coming of Jesus yet to occur.

There’s a king and a captain high, And he’s coming by and by,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside, Who was tortured till he died,

and he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He was hated and rejected, He was scorned and crucified,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
When he comes! When he comes!
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes.
They’ll be shouting our Hosanna! To the man that men denied
And I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes.

 

Jesus says, “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

 

 

 

 

 

Isaiah 64:1 New International Version (NIV)

 

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!

Mark 13:24-37 (NIV)

24 “But in those days, following that distress

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

 

 

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