The First Sunday of Advent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Mark 13:24-37

Today is the beginning of a new Church year, the First Sunday of Advent, the first day of the New Year. So you would think that on New Year’s Day, things might be a little more upbeat, a little more gay, a little more joyful. But instead, we get this for the Gospel:
“The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shaken.” Bummer.

It sounds as if the doomsdayers have nailed it. They were right all along. The end will come and soon, and what better reading to begin the New Year than Mark’s version of the end of the age—advance warning of what is to surely come when the celestial clock ticks down to all zeros. The end is coming, finally, really, soon.

Last week, as I was preparing this sermon, I thought about all the other Advent 1s that have passed, and the Advent 1 sermons preached. A third of those—since we’re in a three-year lectionary cycle—a third of those Advent 1 Sundays, and the sermons preached on those Sundays, have had Mark 13 as the gospel text. And many in every generation have said, “Get ready! The time is near. The time is here. Jesus will return in our lifetime.” Every generation has said that. That message has been preached and believed, I believe, because of just plain good old human arrogance. Many of us just can’t imagine the world without us. Therefore, it makes sense the world would end before we die. Right? I mean, how can the world go on without me?! And so, amazingly, like never before, there are always signs and wonders pointing to the end—in every generation—even though part of the gospel says no one knows when the Son will come, not even Jesus. But WE know. Or at least SOME think they do.

So what is a preacher supposed to say that’s different? To say that the end is not near? That Jesus is not returning soon? Are 21st century preachers supposed to have greater insight or a more novel approach than the countless others who have come before? Is it somehow supposed to mean more or be clearer to us. Are we supposed to know what Jesus said no one knows?

Wouldn’t that be the same argument in reverse? “We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but it definitely won’t be today. It’s not imminent.” We don’t know. So, we probably just need to tell the story, just like the preachers before us, except to place it in the proper perspective, our current context, our own time and place. And listen to what Jesus is saying: It doesn’t matter when. What matters is that you are prepared. Ready. We need to focus less on when this will happen and more on being prepared, so that that can help give meaning and direction to our lives.

And so, we begin, just like those before us, by going backwards to look at the present and the future. We return to that mysterious passage in The Acts of the Apostles, The Ascension (which really is when the church began): “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'”

“Go back to Jerusalem,” the angels say, “But never forget to look up.” To watch. To stay on your toes. To be awake. To be sober. Like a thief in the night, Jesus will return to earth in something of the same way he departed, only in reverse.

Instead of going up through the clouds to be seated at the right hand of God, Jesus will return from the right hand of God to usher in the kingdom of God on earth: A kingdom that is paradoxically already here, but in its completeness, not yet; A kingdom that is at once realized, and yet unrealized; A kingdom near—at hand—but also far off; A kingdom we can live in, and yet only catch glimpses of; But Jesus is coming to bring that kingdom to its fullness and glory and completion.

And each generation of Christians since that moment in Bethany, when Jesus lifted up his hands and blessed the disciples and was carried up into heaven, has looked up. Each has watched and waited, some with more expectancy than others, and some with the audacity to predict the actual time and place that the Coming should occur. So far, all have been wrong.

Paul and the primitive Christian community, believed that the Second Coming was just around the corner, and the End of the Age was near. Paul counseled people not to marry, if they weren’t already, and to slaves he said not to worry about seeking freedom. There wasn’t time, or at least there were more important things to do with the time that was left, such as preparing for the Coming of the Lord. But the Lord never came.

And Paul wasn’t the only early Christian anticipator. No one even bothered to write a gospel account until 50 years or so after Jesus was gone, because they thought he was coming right back. (And apparently Jesus, himself, believed this. He told them as much. “Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Augustine all looked for the coming of Jesus in their lifetimes. So did the Anabaptists and the Pietists of the 17th century and countless other millennialists, and so it has continued to this day. Time after time, people and groups of people have prepared for the coming of Jesus—to meet the Lord in the air—but it hasn’t happened.

Maybe that is why the subject of the Second Coming has evolved in our day into a genre of humor on one side and desperate anticipation on the other, with slogans and warnings on roadside signs or printed on T-shirts, or condensed into wisdom the size of a bumper sticker. Or it has evolved into the good news/bad news joke: that Jesus is returning (good news) but that he is heading for Salt Lake City (bad news).

And yet, we are serious in our belief that Jesus is returning. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church makes this affirmation every Sunday, in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” In our Eucharistic Prayer, “we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”

The End will come. Not by a meteorite. Not by a Big Bang in reverse. Not by a nuclear holocaust. Not by thinning the ozone layer. Not by Ebola or an outbreak of a “superbug.” Not by Zombies. Not by anything humanly wrought. But the End will come—God’s End—in God’s time:
“…about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” Jesus declares, leaving us all in a state of expectant unknowing.

Jesus’ point: We are expected to live each day as if the End is tomorrow. To live, therefore, fully in the now—yet with one eye cast upward in expectancy.

Will this year or this decade or this century bring the Second Coming of Christ? Will Jesus’ return occur even in the next day, even in the next 1000 years? Who can say? Not us, not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. We are told simply to be awake. To maintain split vision: to look up for Jesus in the clouds with one eye, while keeping the other focused on the earth in Jesus’ name. Not to be carried away with our gaze toward heaven, so that we forget our mission on earth, — but not to be so taken with earthly things, that we forget about things heavenly.

In other words, we look for Jesus in both places. Up there and down here. Just as a physician works to help patients recover from sickness—without the belief that he or she will be ending disease forever—we, too, must, for heaven’s sake and for the love of Jesus, work for justice and peace and the well-being of all. Doing what we can in the sure and certain hope of the world to come – the kingdom that is already here, but not yet—not in its completeness.

Wherever we are, whatever we are given to do, we are to be, as George said last week, “little Christs” in the world: & remembering, as Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things; only small things with love.”

And as long as I’m in this quoting moment, Martin Luther King, Jr. said something to the same effect, and his profound wisdom leaves us with a thought to carry us into the rest of Advent, and on into the rest of our time on Earth. He said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or as Beethoven composed music. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause and say, [‘There is a great street sweeper who does his job well.’”]*

This is what we can do until the Messiah comes: We can be the best Christians we can be. We can be Christians who live and love well, as God would have us live and love. Love God. Love one another. Live and love and enjoy life. Do the best we can at whatever we do. And keep awake. Keep alert. Be faithful. Jesus is coming.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

* exact quote is, “. . . here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”