TEXTS: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:22-37
For about 90% of Christians and quite nearly 100% those who are not Christian, the only thing anyone knows about Advent, if they know anything at all, is that it leads up to Christmas. Christmas is the star attraction, the main act. Christmas is Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. Advent is the local garage band that is there in the arena to fill time, and if the band is really, really good it warms up the crowd a bit before Springsteen comes on stage. Advent has its own beauty, but often that beauty is lost because it is so overshadowed by Christmas. And with the commercialization of Christmas worldwide, with retail stores setting up Christmas displays in late August, with announcements on the news that the economic stability of our entire nation rests upon Christmas retail sales, Advent is all but forgotten.
So I ask you, does today’s lectionary passage from the gospel of Mark sound anything like Christmas or even like the preparation for Christmas? Does today’s Old Testament passage or the Psalm for the day sound anything like our preparations for Christmas? Oh there is preparation in the passage; there is expectancy and a looking toward to the coming of a great event, but the great event has nothing to do with babies, especially babies in mangers; it has nothing to do with joyous messages to shepherds in the field; there are no wise guys in the message at all.
So, just to set the record straight, (and I hope that I don’t shock any of you too deeply), I need to say with all the pastoral authority that I can muster, Advent is not primarily about the coming of Christmas I is not about babies in mangers or shepherds in the hills or wise guys from afar. What Advent is primarily about is the preparation for the coming again of Jesus Christ. Advent is not about preparing ourselves for the celebration of the 2,000-something-th celebration of the birth of Christ upon the earth, but instead about the coming of the Son of Man in glory to usher in a new age, an age where God’s realm comes to earth, or at least comes to us; an age where there is new life for all and that life is life that is lived eternally in the immediate presence of God Almighty.
And then the question for this Advent season shifts from, “Do you have gifts for all your relatives and friends; have you mailed out those Christmas cards; what’s the guest list looking like for the big Christmas dinner?” to “Are you ready for Christ to come again and usher in a new reality that we like to call the Kingdom of God?”
Of course there’s a world of difference between these two questions, and that difference ushers in a whole raft of additional questions and more than a bit of consternation. For you see, whether we like it or not, our expectancy toward Christmas Day and the celebration of the birth of Christ is running on a very specific time table. Christmas is coming and will arrive exactly at its appointed hour with a precision that the New Jersey Transit Authority could only dream about. We know when Christmas will arrive. We’ve known all our lives when Christmas would arrive each and every year of our lives. And while time may seem to travel at a certain speed for each us, as the days creep along agonizingly slowly for children waiting to open those Christmas gifts under the tree, yet seems to speed by for Adults who know that a certain number of tasks must be accomplished before the family comes by for dinner on Christmas Day, there are still just so many days ‘til Christmas, a universally set number of hours in each day and minutes in each hour.
But as for the coming of the Son of Man, as for the return of Jesus Christ to this earth, we have no idea of the day or the hour, or even the week or the month. Years have passed, decades and centuries, with no announcement of that incoming train by the stationmaster. Even Jesus himself confided in his disciples that he didn’t know. Jesus did suggest that signs of the coming of God’s reign would be out there. Using an agricultural simile, he noted that a fig tree could tell farmers of the changing seasons. But the bottom line was that the Reign of God would arrive without fanfare and with great suddenness.
Of course that has not kept religious prognosticators from making their predictions. One of my personal favorites that I mentioned to the Bible Study Group this past Tuesday afternoon is a fellow by the name of Jack Van Impe who has had a television show for what must be at least 50 years. On each episode of that show he regularly aligns current events with cherry picked passages from the Bible, mostly from the books of Revelation and Daniel, to show us the immediate coming of the apocalypse. What befuddles me is that after 50 years what amounts to inaccurate alignments between very current events and very ancient Bible passages, Mr. Van Impe, now a very old man, can still draw an audience! I guess humanity has always had a weakness for what is perceived to be inside information. Humanity has always believed down deep in its heart that the system can be “gamed” and that if we listen to the right people and if we do our own religious homework, then we will somehow have a “leg up” on others and will be ready for the coming of Christ when they are not.
I have been enjoying a daily comic strip in the local newspaper titled “Baby Blues” that centers around a young family with three children. In the past last week or so young Zoe, the eldest daughter, has convinced her younger brother, Hamish, that Santa has sent her a personal email noting that if Hamish wants gifts for Christmas, he has to be nice to her. Of course the parents are totally mystified at their son’s sudden and radical change in behavior toward his sister, as Hamish strives valiantly to “game the system” of getting on Santa’s ‘good’ list, and Zoe enjoys being treated like a queen.
Friends, just in case you aren’t aware, you can’t game the system. It won’t work on Santa Claus and it won’t work on God. Jesus will come to earth when God chooses. There will be signs and wonders, but of the day and of the hour we will not know, because no one will know; not the people of Zion, not the Bishop or even the presiding Bishop, not Jack Van Impe, not even Jesus. This can, of course, only mean one thing. We must be ready at all times for that coming, which is one of the most challenging aspects of our faith in Christ, that sense of constancy of our faithfulness, the sense that we must always be ready.
Can you imagine that concept translating to something that we know very well? Can you imagine knowing that a dozen relatives will be coming to your house for Christmas dinner, but that you have no idea when Christmas will fall and when those relatives might be knocking on your door? You would have to have the house always clean, the turkey forever prepped and ready to pop into the oven, the pantry always well stocked, the pies always baked. Thank God faithfulness is not quite that physically complex. For you see, faithfulness can be practiced always. You don’t have to worry about whether the turkey is prepped or the pantry is full. It is a simple matter of loving God and loving those about you as created in God’s image – each and every one of them. It is about loving God’s creation as God loves you and proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. It’s about being alert and about not letting the worries of this sinful world pull you down and paralyze you with apathy and even with fear. It’s about being ready for ‘that day’.
For Christ is coming. Come Lord Jesus Christ, quickly come!