December 3, 2017

Preached by Rev. George Yando on December 3, 2017.

Isaiah 64: 1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13: 24-37

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You Haven’t Seen Anything Yet!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, for the church, the time of preparation for Christmas.  The Church has always prepared by going back to biblical times, to the time of ancient Israel before Christ’s coming, to try to experience what it was like to wait for the coming of the Messiah.  Indeed, that’s the mood of the Advent hymn we sang this morning:

O come, O come Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lowly exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

That hymn captures the mood of Advent, a time of expectation, a time of not-having, a time of waiting – waiting on God to act. But Advent is also a time that reminds us that when God did act, it was not as expected.  The people of ancient Israel envisioned Messiah coming as a kind of conquering hero, as one who would judge “as a refiner’s fire;” instead they got a baby born in the most humble of circumstances, to parents of no importance.

The purpose of Advent is to help us experience that, to see what it is like to “wait in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”   There’s a reason for that.  If we can experience what it was like for Israel to wait for Messiah, then perhaps we can see that that’s exactly what we’re doing here and now.  For Advent is not only a remembrance of a time back then, but a description and a thoughtful experience of life today.   Our life is a time of waiting too, a time of Advent, of waiting for our Saviour to come.

But you have to wonder: If Messiah has come, then why doesn’t the world look like the Kingdom of God?  Or to put it another way: If Christianity has been around for more than 2,000 years, why isn’t the world more Christian” Why aren’t Christians more Christ-like?  Why this gap between the promise and the result, the reality?

Why the distance between what I had hoped for in my life and what my life has actually been?  Christ has come!  That is what Christmas is all about, and yet, the world is not at all the way the prophecies said it would be.

In Advent we take a long, hard, honest look at the distance between what is promised and what has actually happened, between what ought to be and what really is.  And the Church’s answer to the hard questions of Advent is, “Christ has come and Christ will come again.  And in the meantime, we, like Israel, must wait.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lowly exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

You know, we’re not just acting, or role-playing when we sing that.  We’re not just pretending that we are back in the time before the first Christmas, a time when the world waited for the first advent of Messiah.  We’re singing about ourselves, and about right now, about our own lives.

We’re singing about a world that still has Herods in it, a world where people are still poor and homeless, a world where there are wars and rumours of wars, a world filled with sickness and pain, absurd suffering and meaningless dying.  It’s a world where people still cry out for justice; for meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s a world where people still cry out for someone to save them from the sins, or from the consequences of their sins, someone to rescue them from the darkness and despair, the hopelessness and sadness of their lives.

So if you can see the gap between what has been promised at Christmas and the way the world is now, and if you’ve asked that hard question, “Where is God in all of this?” then you know why the early church prayed, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”   And why they affirmed, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  And why they recited in the earliest creed “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”  And most of all, you will understand why they remembered all those things Jesus himself said about his coming again, and why they are recorded in Holy Scripture: so they would always be there as an answer, a response to these hard questions.

The Gospel lesson is one such passage.  It answers two questions that are central to Advent: “When will Jesus come?” And, what are we to do in the meantime?”  Listen again to the passage in that light:

“No one knows, however, when that day or hour will come—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father knows.  Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come. 

            It will be like a man who goes away from home on a journey and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.  Be on guard, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming—it might be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or at sunrise.  If he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep.  What I say to you, then, I say to all: watch!”

The message is clear.  Those who wait for the Second Coming are not to speculate on when it will come or how it will come.  We do –  not – know.  Three times it’s underscored. In v. 32: “No one knows, however, when that day or hour will come;” then in v. 33: “you do not know when the time will come.” And again in v. 35: “you do not know when the Master . . . is coming.”  Three times in the space of five verses it says, “You do not know . . .”  So many times everyone ought to get it.  Or so you would think.

Nevertheless, you can’t help but wonder that we must be wrong somehow because there are still people who claim to know when it will happen.  They seem to be able to connect any number of biblical prophecies with any number of world events and interpret these as signs that the end is near.  And they have wide followings.  Perhaps it’s because there’s something in human nature that takes grim delight in bad news, that wants to hear that we’re on the brink of disaster.  Perhaps for some it’s the hope of eternal escape from whatever life in this world has failed to deliver.  Some people just want to read or hear the daily news delivered to them in end-of-the-world language.  They are consumers of catastrophe.  Current events become constant signs of the last days.

There are lots of so-called bible teachers and preachers out there who will take the latest stock market decline, connect it with the rise of a new leader in Russia or North Korea, throw in a few natural disasters that happen around the world from time to time and conclude, “This is it.  These are the last days.  Jesus is coming.  It says so, right here in the Bible.”

Well, that may be.  Or not.  The fact is, one of these days they’ll be right.  It’s like the guy whose mantle clock was stopped; hadn’t run in years.  When asked about it he said, “Why bother to fix it, it’s right twice a day.” Or perhaps it’s more like the hypochondriac who died and left instructions for her gravestone to be inscribed with the epitaph, “See, I told you I was sick.”  One of these days, they’ll be right.  But when that will be, I don’t know.  What I do know is that the Bible says “No one else knows either.”      No one.  Not the angels, not even the Son.  Only the Father.  So why bother trying to guess?  Why worry about it?

The good news of the text is that some one does know – and that’s God.  God knows.  The Bible says we don’t know and can’t know these things, but God knows, and that’s all we need to know.

You see, when it comes to the future, it’s like the advertisement about success that goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  We may not know when the last days will be, but we know that God knows, and that’s all we need to know.

It’s no accident that Jesus chose the word “Father” when speaking of God here.  Rooted in Hebrew and other Semitic languages, it’s the most personal and intimate word for God in the Bible, “Abba.”  It’s the same word Jesus said to use when we pray, “Our Father.”   No one knows the future but the Father, which suggests that we are to be like children in regard to the future.  In relation to the future, we are all like children.

As a parent, I’ve experienced what it’s like to have children place their complete and utter trust in me.  It came as an almost frightening realization that for a season in my life – and theirs – my children had absolute faith in me.  They didn’t worry about the future.  That was my problem.  They lived one day at a time.

While I wrestled with questions like “What’s going to happen tomorrow?” or “What shall we do next week?” or “Where will we be a year, or two, or five years from now?” –  their question was, “What are we doing today?”  They would come with all kinds of questions, fully expecting me to be able to answer them – and remember, that was in the days before the Internet, Google and Wikipedia.  They’d bring broken toys to me to fix, confident I could fix anything.  Sometimes I’d have to tell them “No one can fix this, not the angels in heaven, not the Son, no one.” No, I didn’t tell them that, but if I had, they’d have believed that, too.

“No one knows but the Father,” means we are to be like children with regard to the future.  That is to say, we are asked to move into the unknown in life, trusting that the God who has brought us this far will not abandon us.  “No one knows but the Father,” said Jesus.  And that’s all we need to know.

That answers the first question: “When will Messiah come?”  The answer is “No one knows but the Father.”  The second question is: “What are we to do in the meantime?”  And the answer to that question is: Watch!

I mentioned that the phrase “No one knows” appears three times in five verses.  The word “Watch” also appears three times in the same five verses, including the last word, for emphasis: What I say to you, I say to everyone: `Watch!'”  Wrapped up in the middle of this passage is the parable of the doorkeeper, an illustration of the lesson to keep watch.

The master goes away, leaving the servants to work, and assigns only the door keeper to do the watching.  To be watchful, then, is to be busy doing the work the Master has left for us to do, and not to be worrying about when he will come back.  Just concentrate on what you are supposed to be doing.   You have more than enough to keep you faithfully busy in the present without engaging in idle speculation about the future.   And you know what He told you to do.  He told you to feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, befriend the stranger, give the enemy a cup of cold water, and love your neighbour.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.  Put that way, watching looks like work.

We would do well to take a lesson from our cousins in biblical religion, the Jewish people.  They’re experts in watching.  They’ve been waiting a long time for Messiah, and they have a long history of instruction in just how to wait.  There’s a legend about Johanan Ben Akkai, a pupil of the famous rabbi, Hillel.  Akkai said to his pupils, “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.”  That fits perfectly with Jesus’ teaching about how watching means working.  We don’t know when the Master will return.  No one knows.  So keep on working.  Do the work of the Lord, watch, but don’t worry.

This passage has a wonderfully hopeful note about it.  The very fact that we don’t know about the future, about our Lord’s Second Coming means we can be infinitely hopeful about it.  It’s just as likely that his Second Coming will be as unpredictable and as wonderful as the first.

I read somewhere that in the game of chess, there are 400 different possible positions on the board after each player has made just one move. After each player has made the second move, there are over 70 thousand possible positions.  After three moves each, there are more than 9 million.  I would have thought the opposite.  I would have thought the greatest number of possibilities existed before you did anything, and the longer you played, the fewer the options.  But in fact, the opposite is true: the more moves, the greater the options and possibilities.

The same is true with regard to our future, which is a good reason for not worrying about it.  Just keep praying.  Just keep working.  Just keep doing your best.  The more you do, the greater the possibilities that God can do something with you and in you and through you.

In light of all that I’ve been saying, it occurred to me that perhaps the word “watch” has a different meaning than the one we usually ascribe to it.  Perhaps it doesn’t mean staring, fixing a concentrated gaze, squinting and straining to see just a little farther ahead.   Perhaps it doesn’t mean anxiously scanning the horizon, to catch first sight of some enemy, or some disaster that’s about to befall us. I always thought that was the role of the watchman in Jesus’ parable: to keep watch and give a warning so that we could brace ourselves and get under cover.

But maybe “watch” in terms of Advent means something else.  Perhaps it means “look, you haven’t seen anything yet!”  Like the magician who gets our attention, who calls us to watch carefully, to look up his sleeves and examine the inside of the empty hat.  And then he does something absolutely dazzling, something we would never have expected to happen, something that surprises and delights in a way for which we could not possibly have been prepared.

Maybe that’s what “watching” in Advent is really all about.  “Watch” means “Watch this.  You think the Son of God coming as a baby born in a manger was something.  Well, watch this.  You haven’t seen anything yet!  Just watch.”  Jesus said, What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch! Amen.