First Sunday of Advent; November 30, 2014; Year B 2014
Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor. 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who will tear open the heavens and come down on the last day, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the spring of 2010 I saw something that shocked me, something that I had never seen before. I was at a campfire with some friends at seminary right before graduation. It was very dark.
I was talking to one of my friends when all of the sudden the entire sky lit up as if it was mid-day. I looked over my shoulder to see a large ball of what looked like fire streaking across the sky. We all stared with our jaws dropped at the long and brilliantly colorful tail that followed behind the flaming chunk of matter. Within a matter of seconds we could see the ball burst into some smaller pieces. We heard what sounded like loud thunder and we felt the earth shake beneath us for a brief second.
When the sky darkened once again we all stared at one another in the light of the fire and said, “What was that?” One person then exclaimed, “I’m not ready for the end!” and I said back, “I am.”
I walked home that night by myself and ended up lying on a grassy hill and looked up at the stars. I couldn’t help but think about our Scripture reading from Mark 13 and other places where Jesus says to “Look up!” as we watch and wait for his coming again. I looked for more stars to fall that night but they stayed right in their place.
There is nothing like the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, a few weeks before Christmas to come to worship and hear from what is called “the little apocalypse.” Mark 13 is meant to shock us into awareness and wake us up to the things in life that really matter.
Yes, it is only a few weeks before we read the Christmas story about the baby in the manger, and yet we cannot forget that the little baby is God in the flesh, the God who comes to earth to live, to love, to die, and to rise from the grave for the sake of the entire cosmos, including your life and mine.
We are now living in between Easter and the final coming again of Christ. We confess it in our statement of faith: He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Believe it or not, this is meant to be good news, and yet, so many are terrified of this…why?
I can think of a number of reasons, but perhaps it is mostly because we have difficulty being hopeful about something we cannot fully understand or know what something will be like. Like death, we simply cannot know what the final returning of Christ will be like. We know there will be great suffering thanks to Scripture, and yet we know there is great promise with Jesus’ return, again thanks to the Word of God. This can be both terrifying and also reassuring at the same time.
I find that most people are in one of two camps: One is that people are suffering so much in this life already that they cry out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” They do not care if it means the end of the world as they know it or what other suffering they may need to endure. Life has become so difficult their whole being longs for God, a God is who intimate and present, a God who makes wrongs right, a God who ushers in the new heaven and new earth in which all suffering will cease. I myself have been in this camp, like the night the sky lit up.
The other camp is that life for some is going quite well. They don’t think about Christ returning and they would rather him hold off a while in order that they could live their life on this earth. They are content with the way things are. I too, have been in this camp as well.
Depending on what is going on in our lives we can fluctuate between our whole being longing for God to tear open the heavens and see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, to being just fine thank you very much.
Important questions to ask ourselves are: Do you really expect Jesus to show up in your life by the power of the Holy Spirit, or ultimately be a witness to the last day? Do you look for him in your neighbor or even in yourself? Do you expect to meet him in Hope Chapel through the Word proclaimed and in the sharing of communion?
We can be so quick to put our hope in heaven, or going to heaven when we die. We can be so quick to put our hope in things on this earth like money, success, and people, yet we hear today that earth and even heaven will pass away. Both are temporary! And yet, what will not pass away are Jesus’ words. Rarely do we put all our hope in Christ and his words of love and forgiveness, even people of deep faith. When we don’t do this we become afraid and we live our lives in fear. Our hope is supposed to be in Christ and in his words…his promises.
If there is one thing I would stake my life on, it is trusting in Jesus and what he says. He will never forsake you, and unlike most human beings, he will never break his promise. Promises like: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also (John 14.3).” Words like, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28.20).”
A friend of mine, who is also a person I greatly admired, died in the last two weeks after a long struggle with cancer. He was a pastor and a professor and wrote a number of books. One of the books he wrote is called, “The Gospel According to Mark (by Richard Jensen).” I read some of it this week as I prepared to preach today. It is the first time I have read something he has written since he died. It dawned on me in the reading of his words that his witness to the Gospel still lives on in his words even though he has passed, giving life and hope to all who read them.
My friend addresses the anxiety that one can have upon thinking about Jesus’ return. It raises anxiety for some because no one knows when it will be, not even the angels in heaven, nor Christ himself. All predictions of the end of the world as we know are at best a guess.
He writes in his book concerning this fear: “We don’t know the day or the hour. We do know who is coming, however. We have met the future and his name is Jesus. We have met him in life as a gracious Savior. We shall meet him again on the last day and he will be for us there also, a gracious Savior (p. 189).”
So what do we occupy ourselves with in the active waiting for our gracious Savior to return? What does it mean to “keep awake?”
I heard a story this week about a 62 year-old woman, whose father was a pastor. She faithfully attended worship her whole life and is considered by many to be a person of deep faith. She said to her pastor this week: “My whole life I have always asked God to help me, but I’ve never asked God what I should be doing. Now I ask God what I should be doing.” This prayer is some of what it means to “keep awake.”
Jesus does not want us to literally stay up day and night. He wants us to ask God what God would have us do to bring hope and healing to this world. To “keep awake” means to wake up and spend your time and energy on things that really matter.
Wake up to heal relationships that are broken.
Wake up to reading Scripture, the word of God that will never pass away, and let it sink into your heart, your mind, and your bones.
Wake up and see the realities of suffering.
Be awake and aware of how precious your life is and the world God has made.
Don’t worry about when the end will come, but anticipate it with longing and joy.
We must remember that “the end” is really only the beginning of what God has in store for the restoration of all things. There is the beautiful vision at the end of the book of Revelation in which the New Jerusalem descends down from heaven and heaven and earth are joined as one.
John writes (Rev. 21.3-4):
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
I learned after the night I experienced some of the sky falling, that what I saw was called a “fireball.” People found pieces of it scattered across a number of states and people saw it in many areas of the US. For some it was a natural phenomenon, for me it was that, and also a reminder of the promise that Christ will certainly come again.
Can we even imagine a day in the new creation in which we will look at one another and say, “Remember when heaven and earth passed away?”