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Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent

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 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,} “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.”


Be Ready!

Some of you may be asking, what’s going on here?  This is the first Sunday of Advent, more than that, it’s almost Christmas.  Thanksgiving is over, along with “Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday.”  The restaurants and shops are playing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”  Everything is decorated for the holiday, but we’ve gathered this morning and the gospel lesson for today is about suffering, and the sun being darkened, the moon without light, and stars falling from the sky.  Something seems out of sync in this season of light.

Not long ago, I read about this couple who visited mainland China.  One day, the couple was taken to a beautiful nearby park where they saw hundreds of Chinese locals playing board games, kicking soccer balls, doing Tai Chi, and folks playing music on whatever instruments they had brought.  There was even a several hundred voice ad hoc choir and orchestra in the midst of a community sing.  The group, on seeing the visiting Americans suddenly struck up a number that they figured the visitors could join in as well.  It was “Jingle Bells.”

It was August.  It was ninety degrees.  And the couple said they joined in with gusto: “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh.  O’er the fields we go, Laughing all the way.”  “Jingle Bells” in China — where Christmas isn’t a big holiday.  August.  Ninety degrees.  It was somehow out of place.

Now here we are in church less than a month from the big day, and our reading is about gloom and doom.  Our lesson from St. Mark’s gospel is part of a chapter that’s often called The Little apocalypse because it sounds so much like the language of the more famous Apocalyptic literature that we find in the book of Revelation.  As you accomplished Bible scholars know, apocalyptic literature usually comes out of scary times.

In the Old Testament, we find this kind of material in the book of Daniel, which comes from the era a couple hundred centuries before the birth of Christ when Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek emperor, desecrated the temple and tried to impose pagan practices on the Jews.  Jump forward some 300 to 400 years, and we find the book of Revelation coming from the end of the first century when Christians were being persecuted because they refused to worship the Roman emperor.  While this style of literature is most certainly strange to us, the word apocalypse itself simply means “unveiling” or, in fact, “revelation.”

This style of writing wants to convey a message of hope, in “code”, that wouldn’t be understandable to those who are outsiders.  That way the author would hope to get their message across without arousing the suspicion, or anger, of the hostile authorities.

Apocalyptic literature normally smacks of a strong and stark contrast— simply put, good versus evil.  It relies on lots of symbols — numbers, colors, animals — “codes” that only the faithful would understand.  It regards present dangers as passing phenomena that will eventually lead to God’s ultimate victory.  It’s a word of hope to the persecuted faithful who, when the end is finally realized, will finally receive a godly reward.  The intent is for the reader to be prepared and ready for what’s to come.  The Christian church has preached this theme for generations.  Thus, we encounter the two mini parables that Mark quotes.  The first involves a fig tree.  No curse this time as with other references in the gospels.  This time, it’s a simple observation.

The disciples had asked for a sign (Mark 13:4), so Jesus offers one.  Most of the trees in that part of the world are evergreen, but the olive and the fig trees are deciduous, losing and replacing their leaves every year.  The olive tree blossoms early, so it’s not a trustworthy indicator that summer is around the corner.  The fig tree, however, blossoms late, so its blossoms promise that summer is almost here.  This fig tree isn’t withered but is blooming, a harbinger of hope.  If the first parable is about signs that should alert us, the second is a reminder to stay alert.

In this morning’s parable, a master of a house goes off on a journey and leaves his servants (that’s you and me) in charge with instructions to keep watch.  This was an admonition that would have resonated in that culture because they knew about instructions to Roman legionnaires who pulled guard duty — if they fell asleep on the job, they could be executed for the offense.  Spiritual vigilance is important.  “Therefore,” Jesus says, “keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at the crowing of the rooster, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mark 13:37).

In some churches, the emphasis has been very heavily on apocalyptic themes — the rapture of the church, the great tribulation, and the imminent return of Christ.  There’s the threat of being “left behind” that fueled the interest in those best-selling books and the movie that grew out of them several years ago.  That’s one way those who felt it was their job to tell Christians what we needed to hear to try to keep us in line — “You don’t want to be caught in the back seat of the Chevy with Suzy and the windows all fogged up when the Lord returns, do you?”  The message was, and is, be ready!  Today, I’d like to dial that back a notch or two…or three.

To ensure we’re not in danger of having our eyes so firmly fixed on heaven that we’re of no earthly good, our Bible passage is warning us to be ready in the here and now.  By being ready in this life, that is, by being alert and about the business of the Master, the life to come will take care of itself.  The question then is, how do we go about it?  The good news is, that whether you realize it or not, you have already begun…you’re here.  I’m absolutely convinced, after more than a decade of dealing with people at the heights, at the depths, and every place in between, that there’s no better way to be ready for life out there, than by spending time in here.  It’s here in God’s house that we build the solid foundation that’s so crucial to surviving the winds and waves that come with the storms of life.

Ann Weems is a wonderful poet and the wife of a minister.  Her son Todd was brutally murdered just after his twenty-first birthday.  How does a mother deal with such a devastating blow?  Friends tried to help and offer consolation.  One friend was a seminary professor who called her attention to all the biblical material that seemed to say so much about exactly what she was feeling.  Noting her poetic talent, he encouraged her to put her feelings on paper.  The result is a remarkable compilation that not only helped her in the healing process, it also helped thousands of others as well.  The book is titled, Psalms of Lament, and comes from the collection in scripture where other poets have bared their souls in despair.

Her poetic preface, composed after her work was done, describes what she has learned: “In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life, there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep, and of those who weep with those who weep.  If you watch, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.  A promise of healing and wholeness.  Through Tears — With Hope.”  That’s the church.  We need one another.

If you recall the story of creation from the first chapter of Genesis, you’ll remember the litany of “and God created this, and it was good… and God created that, and it was good, and so on.”  Yet, it only takes until the second chapter of Genesis for us to find something not good — “and God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’”  The lesson God is teaching is that no man, no woman, no boy, no girl, is an island.  This is one of the reasons I encourage folks to attend, and I challenge them to join and take responsibility for what goes on each week.

For all its flaws, for all its quirks, for all its failures, the church is God’s divinely instituted way of offering people, who need people, the chance to find them.  It offers the chance to give life meaning through involvement with others.  Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia upon its freedom from communism once said, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”  The church cannot, and should not, allow such a state of blissful ignorance.  We, you and I, can make a difference.  The vast majority of what happens in our lives is in our hands and is very much of our own choosing.

In Robert Fulghum’s best-seller, It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It, he recounts the following conversation: he spoke with a colleague who was complaining that he had the same stuff in his lunch sack day after day.  “So, who makes your lunch?” Fulghum asked.  “I do,” said the friend.  Guided by God’s Spirit, it’s up to us.

A man went for a walk in the forest and got lost.  He wandered around for hours trying to find his way back to town, trying one path after another, but none of them led out.  Then abruptly he came across another hiker walking through the forest.  He cried, “Oh thank God for another human being.  Can you show me the way back to town?”  The other man replied, “No, I’m lost too.  But we can still help each other—we can tell each other which path we’ve already tried and been disappointed in.  That will help us find the one that leads out.”  That’s what the church is all about, supporting each other and sharing the truth.

As we make our way through this vale of tears, we become confused, we get lost, we search for a way out.  We finally find our way with the help of God, and others who care, others who can share with us their own disappointments, their own blind alleys, their own roads already tried.  The church is here to help us stay alert, to be prepared for what’s to come.  Early on, from our first days in Sunday school, we learn that “God is great, and God is good.”  God is big and strong and mighty, and there’s nothing God cannot do.

God made this world.  God made the animals and the birds.  God made you and me.  He hung the moon and stars in the sky.  Even when we see news of horrible disasters like earthquakes and floods and wars in the Middle East and in Europe, we see miracles like little babies found alive in the rubble, children reunited with parents after all hope had been lost.  We learn that the great God of heaven can take even the awful things in this life and bring good out of them.

In the church we learn, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).  The Bible—there are many good books in the world, but there are none like the “good book.”  According to the American Bible Society, 87% of Americans own at least one copy, and the average household has three.  It’s unrivaled as the world’s all-time best-seller.  Unfortunately, most Americans are remarkably ignorant of biblical basics.

For example, one Gallup survey shows that fewer than half of our nation can name the first book of the Bible.  Only one-third knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  Believe it or not, many said Billy Graham, not Jesus.  One quarter couldn’t say what we’re celebrating at Easter.  One New Jersey pastor made his own small effort to encourage Bible reading, posting this adage on his church sign: “A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to a person that isn’t.”  In the church we learn, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  We believe, because of what we learn here, that we have a mission in this world.

The gospel is indeed good news, and it must be shared – it needs to be shouted from the housetops, printed on balloons, slapped on billboards, chanted at ball games, scrawled across the sky.  Why can’t we do all these things?  Here in church we learn that one of the best ways to share the gospel is by the way we live.  Most importantly, we learn, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Many of you recognize the name Karl Barth, possibly the best-known theologian of the last century.  Dr. Barth was asked near the end of his remarkable career to state the most significant truth he had come across in his lifetime of study.  After a moment of thought, he’s reported to have answered, “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  It’s in this holy place that we learn that the Jesus we come to know in scripture is living, dying, and resurrected proof of God’s love for you and for me.

Back to that trip the couple took to China.  That day, in that Beijing park, it happened to be a Sunday.  Normally, the couple said, they would have tried to find a church on a Sunday wherever they might be, but this was China, and no one in their group was fluent in Chinese, so they knew their options were limited.  But God spoke to them there in that park.  Despite the fact that China and the West have been at political odds for a very long time, you wouldn’t have known that by the reception they received that day.  Smiling faces, outstretched hands, folks wanting to have their pictures taken with the Americans.  In unison, all were belting out “Jingle Bells” in the summer sun.

The author of the article said that what came to mind was a quote frequently (but inaccurately) credited to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  It’s a good thing that words weren’t necessary that day since they could have never understood each other’s words anyway.  The gospel that did come through that morning was the same one we learned so many, many years ago in Sunday school, “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  There will come a day…We don’t know when, it could be evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, but that day is coming; Jesus will return.  So ready or not… keep your eye out.  It’s going to be great!


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