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Sermon for 3 December 2017

FIRST READING Isaiah 64:1-9

1Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence — 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. 5You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? 6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 8But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.


PSALM Psalm 80:1-7

1Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim. 2In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up your strength and come to help us. 3Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. 4O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? 5You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink. 6You have made us the derision of our neighbors, and our enemies laugh us to scorn. 7Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.


SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — 6even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — 7so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


GOSPEL Mark 13:24-37

24{Jesus said,} “But in those days, after that tribulation, 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. 26And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And then 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. 28From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out 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 say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard, keep awake. 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 servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35Therefore stay awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning — 36lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”




Today we officially begin the wonderful season of watching and waiting known as Advent. Thanksgiving is hardly over and we’re already seeing the stores and houses being decked out with lights, inflatable figures and Christmas trees. Our young ones are watching all the commercials, advertising everything from electronic games to the latest stuffed animals and are anxiously waiting Christmas Eve and the arrival of jolly old St. Nick.
I read about one little boy who climbed onto Santa’s lap last year. Santa asked the usual question: “And what would you like for Christmas?” The child stared at him open-mouthed, horrified. Then he gasped, “Didn’t you get my Snapchat?” My how things have changed! Hopefully, all of Santa’s little helpers are consulting their Snapchat accounts when deciding which toys to be bringing this Christmas. It’s my hope however, that the adults here are diligently focused on celebrating the coming of God’s greatest gift to humanity–the gift of His Son. But, alas, this is a busy time of year and I’m concerned our focus will get shifted to more secular things.
The next few weeks will be a time of exhausting activity–buying presents, attending parties, mailing holiday cards, etc. One woman tells about the busy holiday season at her house. She said that she and her husband, Richard, had a truly hectic season. Running out of time, she went to a stationery shop and asked them to print their signature on their Christmas cards, so they wouldn’t have to take the time to sign each one. Soon they started getting cards from friends. The cards were signed things like “The Modest Morrisons,” “The Clever Clarks,” and “The Successful Smiths.” “What’s going on here?” she asked herself. Then it hit her. She had mailed out a hundred cards neatly imprinted with the words, “Happy Holidays from the Rich Armstrongs.”
Well, you and I are rich this Advent and Christmas season, whether we’re named Richard or not, so long as our hearts are filled with the peace, love and joy represented by Bethlehem’s babe. We must, as faithful disciples, keep the season’s focus on Christ. Without the Christ child’s presence, however, this will simply be another hectic holiday. The one thing this season does highlight is the fact that waiting is always challenging.
Waiting for Christmas morning is as difficult for our young ones as is going through the busy Advent season a lesson in patience for us adults. There’s so much to do. Someone once said you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I bet most of us here know what they’re talking about. But one thing we need to stop and consider is the fact that the Advent season has a twin focus. And neither has to do with the hectic consumer holiday season.
One Advent focus is preparing to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. The other is preparing for that day when Christ will bring in His kingdom in all its fullness and glory. In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is talking about the latter of these two grand events–the day when Christ will return to judge the earth. Listen carefully again to Jesus’ words: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 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. “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!’”
These are mysterious words that can be somewhat disturbing. This passage has been used for years by pulpit pounding preachers to scare believers into submission, but, it shouldn’t be that way. These are words of promise for the faithful and should bring us comfort. But, too often, we get distracted by the hustle and bustle of life, so it’s good to be reminded of our Lord’s warning. And a good place to start in this passage is with verse 32; “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father . . .”
Periodically, someone will come along who claims to know when the day of the Lord’s coming will be; the end of everything as we know it. Well, let me set your mind at ease. Don’t listen to these people, period. There is no teaching of our Lord that is clearer than this one: nobody knows when that day will be. No one knows what the future holds.
Some of you may remember when radio preacher Harold Camping predicted that the world would come to an end on the 21st of May 2011. Camping’s radio ministry, which was carried on 150 radio stations nationwide, spent more than $3 million dollars to spread the word on more than 5,000 billboards throughout our land that the Rapture was coming on May 21, 2011, when believers would be swept up to glory. Some of the donations which made this media blitz possible came from Camping’s followers–some of whom quit their jobs, sold all their possessions, even left their wives and children, and spent all their savings to get this message out.
When the Rapture didn’t materialize, Camping revised his prophecy, saying he had been off by five months. But, to his credit, after the cataclysmic event did not occur in October either, Camping acknowledged his apocalyptic prophecy had been wrong. Humbly, he posted a letter on his ministry’s website telling his followers he had no evidence the world would end anytime soon and that he was not interested in considering future dates.
All Camping had to do was read the teachings of Jesus. Our Lord was clear, “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” There’s absolutely no reason that we need to listen to anyone who tells you they have figured out the time and date when Christ will return. Again, these are Jesus’ words, not mine: nobody knows, not even the Son of God. What would be nice to know is when the next stock market correction will be however.
Those who follow the stock market know that, from time to time, there are those who say they know when the market will crash, but the truth is, the markets often defy all logic. Some things in life are unknowable even by the world’s greatest experts. Remember when every political pundit in this land was convinced that Hillary would be our next president? The truth is, the future, to a certain extent, is unknowable. For that matter, none of us can know for certain what the future holds for us individually.
We must beware of the fortune cookie that tells you that romance, prosperity and good health will soon be yours. There’s no way to accurately predict what the future holds for any of us. To think otherwise is foolishness. The Sunday supplement magazine, USA Weekend, ran a story a few years ago titled “Fear: What Americans Are Afraid of Today.” In a scientific poll, the magazine uncovered the things Americans fear most: 54% of us are either afraid or very afraid of being in a car crash. 53% are afraid or very afraid of having cancer. 50% are afraid or very afraid of inadequate Social Security. 49% are afraid or very afraid of not having enough money for retirement. 35% are afraid or very afraid of getting Alzheimer’s. Most of these are occurrences that no one can anticipate.
Some of you may have heard about a home genetic testing device that can tell you whether you’re in danger of having things like Alzheimer’s. But scientists are aware of people who have the genetic markers for Alzheimer’s who never exhibit this condition. The question is, why do we worry ourselves for nothing? Jesus was clear in Matthew; “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (6:34.) The truth is, none of us are guaranteed a worry-free passage through this world. Again, the Bible makes this clear (John 16:33.) This means the best we can do is to be prepared for whatever may come our way and be as prepared as we can for those things that we do know are coming. Jesus will return. He, in a matter of 5 verses, tells us to “stay awake,” that day will come unexpectedly.
“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 . . .” Jesus is plainly warning us that He will return. Furthermore, He’s warning us to be vigilant, be alert, be prepared for that day. “Do not let Him find you sleeping . . .”
A book came out a few years ago that would make a perfect gift for someone on your Christmas list–particularly if that person is a perpetual worrier. It’s titled The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook is a how-to guide on surviving the most bizarre and dangerous situations imaginable. What do you do, for example, if you happen to wander into quicksand? This book will tell you. What do you do if you happen to get cornered by a swarm of killer bees, or need to escape from a burning building? This book has the answers. The authors interviewed experts like emergency medics and wildlife specialists to come up with their step-by-step instructions.
One grateful book buyer wrote that he bought the book for his girlfriend. He thought she’d get a kick out of it. Boy, was he right! The girlfriend’s house caught on fire. She escaped by kicking down a door–following the instructions step-by-step in the handbook. There’s no way to know what worst-case scenario we might confront someday. The best we can do is to be prepared.
I recently read that the unofficial creed of the Department of Homeland Security’s war on terrorism is this: “Be vigilant, be watchful, be prepared.” “Be vigilant in matters of security,” say those in charge of our security, “whether at an airport, a government institution or in the back-sorting room of the post office. Be watchful for signs of terrorism: a back-pack left unattended, a strange request for chemicals at a fertilizer plant, a white powder in the mail or unusual behavior by a neighbor down the street. Be prepared to call the police or FBI. Be prepared to evacuate a building. Be prepared to take defensive measures when your life or the lives of others is threatened. Be vigilant, be watchful, be prepared.”
This sounds a lot like Jesus’ words to us as His followers. “Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back . . .” In terms of our personal lives, that’s about all we can do to protect ourselves or those we love: keep watch and stay prepared. Unfortunately, even the best preparation can prove inadequate.
For example, some of the things that we fear have to do with our physical or mental well-being. We fear cancer, or we fear Alzheimer’s, or a host of other ailments. So, we try to eat the right things and to exercise and to get a good night’s sleep . . . but none of these may matter. We still might contract the very disease we tried hardest to avoid. But disease isn’t the only thing that concerns us.
We worry about our finances, so we work hard and try to make smart financial choices, but few of us have the financial resources to cover all the bases. We could still find ourselves with less than adequate funds to meet our needs. The market still could have a protracted downturn that could wipe out our 401(k)s. We could be involved in a terrible accident that would keep us from working at all. “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry . . .” said the poet Robert Burns, and he was right. There are very few sure things in life. The only bullet-proof investment we can make in this world is to put our trust in God.
Only God will never forsake us. Only God will be there for us and give us the strength to endure. This is to say that after we’ve done all we can do to prepare ourselves externally, we need to prepare ourselves internally by spending time in God’s presence. By spending time daily with God and in living as God would have us live, we develop a trust relationship that makes it possible for us to endure even the most horrible worst-case scenario.
Christian sociologist Peter Berger in his book, A Rumor of Angels, uses an example of a child waking up in the night. She’s been frightened by a bad dream. Her parent goes to comfort her and says, “It’s all right.” Berger asks us to consider what’s happening in this situation. Is the parent lying when he or she says, “It’s all right?” After all, in a world filled with disease, poverty, mass shootings and terrorist attacks, it all looks very far from “all right” in any straight forward sense. Yet Berger claims that the reassurance the parent utters is not a deception, but a true insight that’s vital for the child to receive as it grows into maturity. “In other words, there’s a profound human conviction that ultimately all will be well, a belief that is a sign of the stirring of a deep hope within us.”
In other words, we’re confident that all will be well because God is in control. And so long as God is in control, we, as God’s children, have nothing to fear.
It’s like a delightful story told by Irish writer Patrick Taylor in his book, An Irish Country Christmas. It’s about a woman named Eileen whose eldest son is running a high fever. It’s Christmas, and she has no money to provide her son with proper medical care let alone prepare a Christmas meal for her other kids. She finally decides to take her son to Dr. O’Reilly, a doctor in her village. O’Reilly is moved by her dire situation and decides to help her by arranging a raffle to raise money for Eileen and her family. To get the job done, O’Reilly calls on a friend named Donal, a well-known conman.
An anonymous donor has bought a ticket–number 4444–for Eileen in hopes that she will win the drawing. The night of the drawing Donal fills a hat with the raffle tickets, and the mayor is called upon to pick the winning ticket. He shovels his way through to the bottom of the hat, eventually picking a ticket. On revealing the winning ticket, it reads “4444.” Eileen and her sons leap for joy. They’ve won. The crowd cheers loudly, sharing Eileen’s joy. Eileen’s winnings are sizable–enough to prepare a nice meal for her family as well as take care of her ailing son.
Soon after the drawing had ended, O’Reilly walks up to Donal and asks, “How did you do it?” Donal gives a whimsical smile and brings out all the stubs from the hat. Every one of the tickets had 4444 printed on it. So, the Mayor didn’t pick the winning ticket by chance . . . no matter which one he had chosen, it would have been a winner.
This is the only thing we need to know about the future. Regardless of what may come, a loving God is in control. There may be dark times–there may be surprises, both positive and negative–but we will never be forsaken. God is in control. “But about that day or hour no one knows,” says the Master. Obviously, that’s true. But the one thing we do know is, how it all turns out. The promise is sure, those who are in Christ win.

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