"Preparing to Go"
Jason W. Crosby, preaching
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Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
And so, we return to the beginning again. Today is New Year’s day, at least on the Christian calendar. Today also marks the first Sunday of Advent. Today we cast our gaze toward the manger. Today we begin preparations for our celebration of Christ’s birthday. So why then, in the midst of lights going up, familiar carols filling the air-waves, and holiday festivities kicking into high gear does the lectionary drop Mark 13 in our laps? Why concern ourselves with talk about a darkening sun and a lightless moon when we are on the verge of focusing on the light brought forth by Christ? Why discuss falling stars when we are about to recall Christ’s earliest followers tracking a brightly burning star to Bethlehem? Why are we pointed toward the end of it all before we even get started?
Mark 13 is often called the Little Apocalypse. Here Jesus lifts language from earlier prophets to describe the end times. This chapter of Mark is an anomaly. It is a marked departure from what precedes and what follows. Prior to chapter 13, Mark devotes a great deal of energy informing readers of Jesus’ teachings, parables, miracles, and ministries. When we arrive at Mark 13, Jesus is in Jerusalem. Passover is only two days away. Mark 13, then, transitions us from the life and work of Jesus toward the end of Jesus’ earthly life. In Mark 14, the passion narrative begins to unfold. Why Jesus chose these words at this point in time according Mark’s gospel sheds some light on why we tackle Mark 13 on the first Sunday of Advent.
Whether they knew it or not, Jesus’ disciples were about to enter into a season of waiting. In the short term, Jesus’ disciples would be waiting for his death and resurrection. The days during which the Passion narrative unfolded were surely tense, anxious, and difficult days for Jesus’ closest companions. Witnessing any acquaintance, let alone a friend, endure such an agonizing death, and then waiting on pins and needles to see if he would indeed do the unthinkable, rise three days later, while living under the fear that their association with Jesus may result in their own arrest, persecution, and potential crucifixion was surely a nearly unbearable time of waiting. But, before the events leading up to the death, resurrection, and ascension begin to unfold, Jesus prepares his followers for a longer season of waiting. Jesus attempts to reorient the disciples’ perspective from the immediate future toward a more distant horizon, that day well down the road when Christ would return to redeem all creation once and for all.
Waiting is hard. It was hard enough on the disciples to wait during the days surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection. In Mark 14 after the Last Supper, Jesus goes to the garden to pray. He asks Peter, James, and John to keep watch. Not once, not twice, but three times Jesus approaches the trio to find them sleeping. Not long afterwards, Peter denies his association with Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. In Mark 16, Mary Magdalene goes to the disciples to tell them the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples refuse to believe her report. Then, Mark tells of Jesus walking with two of his followers, but neither recognize him for who he is. How quickly, how easily Christ’s companions grow weary, impatient, and forgetful while waiting just a few days.
It is hard enough to wait for a specified event that will take place at a specified time in the not too distant future. I still recall the agony I felt as I child this time of year, counting down the days to Christmas. Even as we grow older, however, waiting for a word about a job or waiting on the results of a medical test can be painfully difficult. It is particularly difficult to wait for an unspecified event that will take place at an unspecified time. In part, Mark 13 is Jesus’ an attempt by Jesus to ready his followers to for that prolonged period of waiting. He likely knew they would need all the help they could get. Jesus instructs those waiting upon the Lord to return. Stay awake. Be alert. When the owner of this house will return is unknown. So, keep watch, day and night. Keep watch.
Waiting for the Lord necessitates a particular kind of waiting. Most waiting we do is short-term and what we’re waiting for is concrete. Whether we waiting in traffic on I-65 trying to get across the Kennedy Bridge or waiting for a meal at a restaurant, most of our waiting is temporary and the outcome clearly defined. Most of our waiting, then, invites us to let our minds wander. Most of the time we wait we try to distract ourselves. We try to forget that we are waiting and focus our attention elsewhere. Waiting for the Lord, however, requires a different posture. Rather than avoid the wait or numb ourselves while waiting, waiting for the Lord’s final return demands that we immerse ourselves in waiting. God’s children are called to embrace the wait. God asks us to focus our constant attention on God. And, although we cannot know when and in what ways God will redeem all creation, God asks us to continually bear in our minds that one day, in some way, God will return. That’s why we gather here. We gather for worship, prayer, fellowship, and service day after day, week after week, in large part, to wait. When we gather together as God’s people we do our best to focus our attention on God’s goodness and love in order to be reminded that we are a waiting people. We come together as family of God to keep one another awake, to sharpen our alertness, to keep watch.
These words uttered by Jesus at this particular point in time, however, offer us more than pointers on how to wait. These are words of deep hope. While the end is shrouded in mystery, we are reminded here that those who give their hearts to God will see harbingers of what is to come at the end. Like a fig tree on the verge of blossoming, God’s people can detect ample evidence of what God’s kingdom will look like when in full bloom, if we pay attention. We are not waiting for God to suddenly descend from the heavens and end all things in one fell swoop. As we wait God is incrementally revealing before us and gradually unveiling the kingdom that will come. We are God’s partners in this endeavor as we wait. God has asked us to tend to fig tree that will one day fully bloom. We are to water it, pull weeds from around, place it so that it gets the best light by loving one another as God has loved us. Acts like speaking truth to power, indiscriminately welcoming all God’s children into our presence make those limbs a little more tender and bring the kingdom a little nearer. Christ’s second coming may not have come within a generation of Mark’s original listeners, but they saw and we may see God’s realm inching closer.
And, these are words of hope because Christ reminds us that at the end of the day, each of us and this whole wide world are in God’s hands. Our best intentions will not be enough. Our most noble deeds, our greatest scientific achievements, our most innovative technology advancements, will not bring about the peace and joy that God’s assures us, awaits us, in God’s realm. Somehow in a world of great charity, genetic modification of food, and IPad2s, more kids are going hungry in our community than anytime in recent memory. Bonhoffer compared waiting on the Lord to waiting in a prison cell “in which one waits and hopes and does various unessential things… but is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” I am not saying that we should not partner with God to make right such injustices. But, I am saying that for all to be right, we need God. We need God. We need God to come to our rescue, set us free, and redeem all creation. Here, Christ informs us that one day God’s coming to do just that.
On the eve of his final days and resurrection, Jesus informs his followers that God’s story will not come to a close just yet. Jesus informs his disciples that they stand on the precipice of a prolonged season of waiting. While waiting they are to stay alert, remain awake, and keep watch for God. While waiting they are to look for and work to make manifest signs of the coming kingdom through loving words and deeds. While waiting, they are to remember that all hope for creation hinges on God.
Why are we pointed toward the end of it all before we even get started? Just as Christ’s death and resurrection would have meant little if experienced without an understanding that God would come again to set all things straight, celebrating Christ’s birthday is little more than a charade if we don’t believe, or try to believe, that our lives and our world are squarely in the hands of God. Without the belief that God will reign when all is said and done, the birth of Christ is little more than a good story we tell ourselves this time of year to help us get in the right mood. On the other hand, if the beginning is read by folks who believe, or are trying believe, that God is in control of the end of things, then the birth of Christ means everything. Then, the birth means that God cares so deeply about creation that God took on human form to dwell among us, to live, and die, and rise again, to show us how to be the loving people we were made to be. Then, the birth shows us that God is at work in our world now. Then, the birth means that we can rest peacefully in the belief that our God who has come to us once, will surely do so again.
Advent literally means arrival. This Advent season we will commemorate the arrival of Christ in the form of baby born in a lowly manger in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. We will be journeying toward that manger together. All are invited to join us as we make that journey. We wait to remember the birth of Christ, but we also wait in anticipation of Christ’s coming again. This Advent season will mean much more for those who see the journey to the manger as one leg on God’s greater journey to the God’s kingdom. May we wait this Advent season and beyond with alertness and wakefulness. May we wait this Advent season and beyond by looking for and helping bring forth the first signs of the kingdom. And may we wait for that unknown day will Christ will come again. This the journey to which you are invited. Join us, join God, as we go forth. Amen.