A sermon preached by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. December 1, 2002. Mark 13:24-37.
Beware, keep alert (Take heed, watch - RSV); for you do not know when the time will come.
- Mark l3:33
It seems that every year at this time it is hard for me to believe that it is the first Sunday in Advent already. Advent is a time for us to prepare for Christmas, and yet our lives are so busy that Advent itself has a way of catching us unawares. Mind you, with a little snow on the ground I am finding it easier than last year when we hardly had snow at all. Somehow, warm weather and the Christmas season just don’t belong together for me, since I grew up and have lived my life in places where it didn’t really seem like Christmas if there was no snow.
So here we are. It really is the fourth Sunday before Christmas and the beginning of Advent. And it is the beginning of the church’s liturgical year. The calendar of the Christian year does not begin in January when our everyday calendar does; and neither does it begin in September when school takes up and students of all ages begin a new year at school or college or university. No, the calendar of the Christian year is based on the life of Jesus, and so it begins with the preparation for his birth. It begins with Advent – it begins today.
And the First Sunday in Advent is a time of looking back to the first coming of Christ, and also looking ahead to the final coming of Christ. And so our scripture readings for this day may sound a little different from the ones we usually think of when we are preparing for Christmas.
In the passage from Mark’s gospel, we read a portion of what is called the Little Apocalypse – which is a passage where Jesus is talking about the end of time. After telling his disciples some of the things that will happen, he says that
...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. (13.32-33)
And he tells a short parable that also advises people to keep awake.
In a book on the Gospel of Mark by Bogard Dunn who was my seminary Dean, we find some things of interest about this passage. First, since no one except God knows when (and if) the world will end, we should not get all upset when someone comes making predictions about the coming of the end. According to Jesus, the angels don’t know, and even he does not know – only God knows. And if we think that we do know, then we are making ourselves equal to God. Not a good thing to do. So then, our job is to watch – to keep awake. We need not be concerned about when and if God will bring an end to history. Rather we need to be concerned lest we be found asleep – lest we trust ourselves and so be complacent about what God may be doing. And if we fail to be alert to God’s doings, then we will not be able to give our witness to them. Bogie Dunn put it this way: “To watch is to trust that the goodness of God is all the security one needs now in this time and in the age to come.” (REPEAT) (Readers Guide to the Gospel of Mark.)
In another commentary on Mark’s gospel, the writer tells a story of an unexpected eclipse of the sun in New England in colonial times. He says that the
...state legislators panicked and several moved to adjourn. But one of them said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.” (Storytellers Guide to the Bible, p. 242)
So our challenge is to be found doing our duty, or being faithful. We do not cease living as Christian disciples because the Lord may come. No, no; just the opposite. We have to continue our Christian service. And so we work as if he were not coming for a long time, because it is our duty and because there is so much to be done. So then, let us be about the work which our Lord has entrusted to us.
This has been well put by Peter Storey who is a South African pastor and Bishop who is also a past-president of the South African Council of Churches. His advice is not original with him, but it is very simple. He says to “Live as if Christ were coming today, and work as if he were not coming for a thousand years.” (Upper Room Disciplines, 1999) I like it. It says simply and succinctly what I think most of us already know and believe, but we may also need some reminding from time to time.
To watch and keep awake is to live as if Christ were coming today. But we are not simply to sit staring into the heavens while waiting for his return. Rather we are to be faithful in season and out of season – in our living and in our working – because we don’t know when he will come, and we want to be ready when he does.
Well, we have noted a little about the first Advent of Christ at Christmas, and about the final Advent which is likened to his coming on the clouds with great power and glory, and for which we are to be watchful. But I also want to suggest that perhaps there are also other advents – intermediate ones – that we should be watching for. I want to make the claim that God comes into our world today and tomorrow in unexpected ways, and we need to be prepared for that coming. You know, today is World AIDS Day. Might it be that God comes to us in the victims of AIDS? (PAUSE) Or in the person who phones (again) for “help” of some kind? Does God come to us in unexpected times and places, and among the lost and the last and the least? Might it be that occasions like these are also times of Advent – times when Christ appears to us? Could they be some of the special times which get our attention and raise our consciousness to the way God works? Are they opportunities for us to welcome the coming of Christ into our daily lives?
Such questions leads us as people of faith to ask ourselves: how are we to act? How do we watch for the coming of Christ? What should we be doing to prepare for his Advent – whether at his birth at Bethlehem, or the last coming at the end of time, or all the intermediate ways that he comes into the world? Perhaps we should involve ourselves in a ministry with those who suffer from AIDS. Or in some other way to carry God’s love into the struggles of so many people in the world today. This day, and in the days ahead, let us think about some ways that we can be ready when Christ appears. Then let us be about doing them. As Peter Storey has said, let us “live as if Christ were coming today, and work as if he were not coming for a thousand years.”
One of the ways that Christ comes to us again and again is when we gather at his Table. Here I want to make a claim about what it means when we do this. For communion is not just a nice little devotional ceremony where we hope to feel good and to have a warm glow about us. Communion is much much more – it is our embracing everything that God was doing in the birth and the life and the death of Jesus and finding there the meaning of our lives. Receiving the sacrament in faith is to express our thankfulness to God, and it is also accept that God wishes us to carry him in our bodies too – for us to live out the ministry of Jesus in our daily lives. And so what this means is that communion is one of the most radical things we can do as Christians, for as we ingest these elements which represent his life, we are being transformed more and more into his likeness. And we are also given strength for the journey as we follow in his steps. Come in faith and thanksgiving; then go in the peace and the strength of God. Amen.