1st Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert
The highest holy days in the Christian year have seasons of preparation. In preparation for Good Friday and Easter, we have the forty days of Lent. And in preparation for Christmas, we have the four weeks of Advent. Advent is a time of preparing not just to celebrate the wonder of Christmas, remembering the birth of Jesus Christ, but it is a time to prepare for the second coming of Christ, especially in the first two weeks of Advent. All the passages in the first two weeks are about the second coming of Christ, not about the first coming.
Talk of the second coming of Christ (mentioned 17 times in the New Testament) is something that generally makes Christians like us a little nervous. Well, it does.
First of all, we have heard the predictions of Christ’s return given in great detail even with dates, and that kind of audacious certainty among some Christians and sects has not seemed plausible to us.
Secondly, we tend to avoid thinking of end times, because we cannot imagine very easily the end of our own life, much less the end of the world. But if we are honest, we do sometimes wonder what happens between this life that we know and the life beyond death, which we do not exactly know.
Thirdly, there are many confusing terms associated with the discussion of end times. Eschatology is the five dollar word for the study of the last times. Parousia is the Greek term meaning arrival, coming, or presence. The term Epiphany, also from the Greek, is used to speak of Christ’s appearing and also the celebration of 12th day of Christmas. The word “Apocalypse” which literally means “unveiling or revelation” is also used to refer to the end of the world.
A literal interpretation of the Bible names four important events:
The Millennium: Revelation describes an important interval lasting for 1000 years when Christ rules. 1 This is a golden era; a time of universal peace.
The Tribulation: This is a 7 year interval when a world religious-political leader called the Antichrist takes power.
Armageddon is a terrible war provoked by the Antichrist. Most people on earth will die. God's anger, hatred, and wrath are poured out over the earth at this time. A series of violent events as prophesied in Daniel 9, Matthew 24, and Revelation 4-19 will occur.
The Rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4 describes a miraculous event when Christ will descend from the heavens towards the Earth. Many conservative Protestants believe that faithful "born again" Christians who have previously died will be resurrected, rise from their graves, and ascend to meet Jesus in the sky. Immediately afterwards, "born again" Christians who had not died will also ascend into the air. They will abandon cars, airplanes, factory jobs, homes, families, friends etc. Others will be “Left Behind” as the series of books says.
These passages of scripture are difficult to understand. They have spawned many conflicting beliefs about the end times. A lot of church strife has resulted from disagreements about end time prophecy. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and most mainline Protestants do not have expectation that a rapture will occur in the way I just described. There are at least six major theories on the end times, but we do not have time in this sermon to address them in all their complexities. I can only recommend that you come to the Bible study on the Book of Revelation in the new year, where some of them will be discussed. Peace has an unusually high number of teaching elders, ministers, people who have been well-trained in Biblical studies (at least half a dozen beyond Tricia and me), so I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities you have to grow in faith here at Peace.
But let’s get on with Mark 13 now, where the charge from Jesus is to be ready, be prepared, be alert, be awake. Pay attention to darkness and light, to subtleties like fig trees producing tender branches, to the words of Christ, which will never pass away, even though heaven and earth will pass away.
"But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27Then 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.
28"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
Notice that in this text Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour – not the angels in heaven and not even the Son himself. Obviously, knowing the hour or day, or trying to predict it is a futile exercise, while being ready, while not knowing the exact day is the key to faithfulness.
We Deiberts made a rather late start on our Thanksgiving trip Tuesday evening. It was difficult to stay awake. Richard and I were drinking coffee and eating ice chips and hot cinnamon candy to stay alert. We struggled to make conversation until finally, we pulled into the hotel north of Jacksonville, where we would spend the night and have breakfast with Richard’s brother and father, on our way to spend Thanksgiving with my family in N. Carolina. I walked into the hotel lobby to get the room key, and the night time front desk operator, happy for some company at 1:00 am, noticed my cross and engaged me in a conversation about the end times and the Christian poetry she writes. She wanted me to read some of it online. All I wanted was a room number and a key, so I could put my head on a pillow, but she wanted a friend with whom to share her belief that since 1959 all the pieces are in place for Christ to come again. I smiled, said something about how we don’t really know when Christ will come again, but affirmed with her what I could affirm and that was that we want to be ready. Ready, even at 1:00 am.
So what does it mean to be ready for the second coming? Let’s think about what we do to get ready for a visit from someone special. We clean up and get dressed. We prepare food or beds or rooms that will be welcoming and pleasing to the guest. We set aside time, so that we will not be distracted. How can we turn our Christmas preparations into Advent of Christ preparations? Can we focus on adorning our hearts even as we focus on decorating our homes? Can we focus on spiritual food as much as physical food? Can we give lasting gifts, such as the blessing of a compliment, the gift of helpfulness, the affirmation of a listening ear, as much as the gifts of clothing or knick-knacks or new technology? Can we give a young child the gift of generosity without spending more money than necessary?
Can we emphasize the reason for the season by making the worship of Christ our focus, rather making church that something extra we have to squeeze into our already frenetic schedules?
When Christ comes again, I would hate for him to be as upset with his Church about our hypocrisy as he was about the Pharisees’ arrogant posture of faith. I would hate to hear him say “I told you to be ready. What are you doing here?” It is our job to help prepare the way for Christ’s coming. We are to live authentic Christian lives, to be humble about the error of our ways, eager to be faithful, ready to receive the gift of God’s grace daily yet willing to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, to be busy serving others, and slow to condemn them.
Staying awake means having an active faith, exercising discipline in our lives. When my family arrived at my brother and sister-in-law’s house for a Thanksgiving Family Reunion on Thursday morning, it would have been disappointing to find them in their pajamas asleep. (Actually, I think my 25 year old nephew was in the shower when we arrived.) But it was clear that my brother, his wife, and to a lesser degree their adult sons, had been preparing all week for the arrival of 30+ family members. When we arrived, they were ready.
We do not know exactly when or how or where or what the second coming will look like, but we know we are to be watching for it, ready for it, awake to it. Many things will distract us during this busy season. In the verses prior to our text, Jesus warns against false messiahs and prophets. Many advertisers and merchants will hold up false messiahs, which are aimed at making you or your family happy. But real joy is not found in material possessions. The real joy you give will not be purchased with money, but will be the interest you show in your family members and friends, and the kindness, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit you exhibit in your togetherness.
At such busy times, especially when we are stressed out and sleep-deprived, it is easy to fall asleep on Christian love. We can get so busy creating a Christmas in our own image, rather than Christ’s image, that we fail to be truly generous with those who really need our gifts – the poor and the lonely. We do not want to fall asleep on the things that make a huge difference for people in need, Alternative Gifts International and Angel Tree Gifts for the Families at Beth-El Farmworker Mission. We do not want to fall asleep on comforting those who mourn, showing up for the Blue Christmas Prayer Service to be in solidarity with those who are lonely or sad at Christmas.
As one Advent rolls into another, and we proclaim each year that it is time to be ready, it will be tempting to simply fall asleep on the eschatology of this present moment, because it is not nearly as natural as eating sugar cookies, going to concerts and parties, buying stuff, and watching football games. Do we subconsciously busy ourselves with more than we can accomplish because we don’t want to deal with what really matters? Have we created an idol of our own Christmas celebration, forgetting the One whom we celebrate on Christmas?
It was a teenager at Peace who was amazed that the session would have to decide to have a Christmas Day service when Christmas falls on Sunday. “Isn’t the day about Christ’s birth?” she asked. So why would we even consider cancelling worship on Christmas Day? I was sorry to have to inform her that attendance at Christmas Day services is not usually high, even on Sunday. I hope you will remember this teen at Peace when you make your decision about Christmas Day worship, because your action will shape all of us.
As children we all learn that the anticipation of the big day is almost more fun than the day itself. So let us anticipate Christ’s coming well. Let us prepare our hearts, our souls, our minds, as well as preparing our homes. Let us prepare for the second coming as well as preparing to celebrate the first. Let us prepare in such a way that we keep alert to the things that really matter – giving gifts that truly bless others -- gifts of love, joy, kindness, helpfulness, and generosity toward those in need. Let us limit our activities so that we are not put to sleep by the exhaustion of the season.
One year, after the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols Service, when our four children were small and just tucked in bed, Richard and I had a glass of wine while lounging by the fire place at about 10:00 and before we knew it, we had fallen asleep unprepared for Christmas. We woke up on the floor, very startled to realize that it was 4:00 am. Never have we been so focused and so fast. I’m praying to have the same sense of urgency every Advent as I had that Christmas morning. The master of this universe has left us his servants, in charge of the house, while he is bodily away from us. He will return some day or night. Will we be ready? Will the house be as he wanted it? Have we paid attention to his desires? Will we be glad to see him, or wish that we had a few more hours to scurry around, to clean up the mess we’ve made?
Please pray with me, the word of a 17th century Advent hymn:
O, Lord, how shall I meet you? How welcome you aright? Your children long to greet you, my hope my hearts’ delight. O kindle, Lord most holy, a lamp within my breast, to do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.” Amen.