Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent 1: About that Day and Hour (Mark 13:32-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, tells the story about a little boy named Brian.  For weeks Brian hounded his parents about getting him a watch for Christmas.  Finally, his dad told him, “Brian, if you mention that watch again, you're not going to get it.“  One night Brian's parents asked him to say grace before dinner.  Brian said, “OK but I'd like to read a scripture verse before I pray.  He opened his Bible and read: “I say unto you, what I have already told you before, watch.”

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching and expectations.   We human beings are fascinated by and curious about the future.  We wonder what the future will hold?  We fantasize about being able to see into the future.  We think about our future and the future of our family, our children and grandchildren, we think about the future of our church, our government, our economy, our nation and of our world.  

We question, for example, if we are going to see more violence and rioting in our nation's future like in Ferguson, MS and other cities.   Whether we agree with the official decision about the police officer or not, and while we grieve with the family who lost their son, though protests are protected by the constitution,  violence, lawlessness, burning down businesses and looting go against our values, not to mention the laws of the land.  

Some people are inherently optimistic about the future?  They are positive and see the silver lining in clouds and the light at the end of the tunnel.   Problems and disappointments they see as blessings in disguise.  The glass is always half full.  They look to the future with confidence.  They envision a better future for themselves and their children and grandchildren, a future filled with greater opportunities and achievements brought about by capitalism and free enterprise, science, technology, and sound social policy.
Other people are filled with dread and anxiety about the future, they are pessimistic and negative.   They see the changes taking place in our culture as detrimental to our future.  The glass is always half empty.  They cannot see any silver lining or light in regard to looking toward tomorrow.

How do you see the future?   Without question, many in our day, and for good reason, are filled with uncertainty about what the future holds.  We witness the continuing historic hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, we see how polarized we are in politics and government and in our society at-large, we are witnessing atrocities and unmerciful violence perpetuated by radical militant terrorism around the world including in our own nation. 

And yet, in spite of our questions, our uncertainity and our fears, Advent says don't dismay – you have a bright future, a hope-filled future, a glorious future, look to the future with glad hearts.

Advent says the days are coming when Jesus Christ will return in glory.  Do we know precisely when this will occur?  No.  No one knows, despite some who claim they do know the time and the hour.   Those who make such predictions are at best misguided and at worst deceivers.

We read in I Thessalonians: “Now concerning the times and seasons brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  

Jesus says: “You will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.  It 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 be on the watch.  Keep awake, watch, for you do not know when the master of the hour will come, in the evening, or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn.”  

We are those servants.  Christ has put us in charge.  The master is coming.  We are doorkeepers and we are to be on watch.  The days are coming.  We are awaiting that day and that hour.

Further, Advent says the days are coming when justice will reign throughout the land.   As people of faith, we believe in and worship a just God.  We believe that the concept of justice is grounded in the mind and will of God.  People must act justly toward one another because it is the divine imperative, God commands it, God wills that people and nations treat one another justly, for all of creation is accountable to God. 

The Jewish prophets spoke for God.  The prophet Amos cries out:  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  The prophet Micah cries out: “God has told you O mortal what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

We see examples of injustice in our world everyday.  We see kids bullying other kids on playgrounds,  people shooting others on the streets or in schools, or movie threaters and leaders like Putin of Russia invading countries in order to expand his power and empire.  We see Abu Bakar Al Bagdadi, self-proclaimed Caliph of Isis and the Islamic State, taking over cities in Syria and Iraq, murdering Muslims and Christians and building his army and his empire.    And we are angry, we are outraged, and we are fearful at such injustice in our world.

We see injustice in our criminal justice system.  A man was on trial for murder.  There were many witnesses.  The case was airtight.  That was why the judge almost keeled over when he heart the jury foreman pronounce the verdict.  “Not guilty.”  “Not guilty, the judge shrieked, but how?”  “By what reason?”   “By reason of insanity,” the foreman replied.  “Insanity,” the judge howled, “All twelve of you!”   

That's how we feel when there is a miscarriage of justice.  It's right to bring people to justice.  Whether it is criminal, or economic or social or ecological or moral, we are incensed when we witness acts of injustice. We are repelled when someone gets away with something.  We believe people must be held accountable for their actions. 

And yet in spite of this reality, Advent promises that one day the playing fields of this world will be leveled, crooked things will be set straight, broken things will be set right, and justice will reign.

Finally, Advent says the days are coming when peace will reign throughout the land.   The prophet Isaiah says:  “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”     The prophet Isaiah says:  “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

A Christian recalls her trip to Israel and a sacred moment, when she experienced a foretaste of the peace, Christ will one day establish on earth.  She writes:  “We walked through the dusty streets of Bethlehem town and soon came to the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. We stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding our way downward into a series of caves, Christ was actually born in a cave.

Once there, I was hushed by the holiness of it all. There were candles lit here, there, and everywhere. Hundreds were on their knees in prayer, scattered about on the cold, damp floor. We made our way to the traditional cave of the birth where we read Matthew's story once again. Soon we were singing. "O Holy Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night."

Right there in a church that has been ravaged by war and terrorism and today is owned by four different religious groups, we prayed for peace.  As we left, I passed by all the pilgrims yet again. Some were from Germany, Poland, or Italy and others from England, Spain, or China. They, too, sang and prayed.  Anger and violence wrestled about in all our worlds, but in that moment we had all come together in Bethlehem to worship and celebrate the Prince of Peace who was working shalom into the folds of our lives, as he will, until the day he returns to work it into all things, once-for-all.

Yes, we certainly question whether peace in our world will ever become a reality.  While we await its advent, the scriptures, and our Christian faith, remind us that we too can have a foretaste of Christ's coming peace, when we experience the presence of God.   The prophet Isaiah says:  “God will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on him, because he trusts in God.”

We become anxious when we feel that things around us are out of control.  We like to believe that we are in control.  Peace comes when we rely not on our self-perceptions of control, but when you trust in God's control of events and circumstances.   Though things do get beyond our control, nothing is beyond the control and will of God.  The prophet Jeremiah says:  “Oh, Lord God, It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you.”

Advent stirs our hearts.  It’s a message of hope.  It declares that the future belongs not to evil, not to sin, but to God.    Jesus is coming to establish an unimaginable and spectacular world.  C.S. Lewis writes:  “When the author appears on stage, you know the play is over.”

We are to watch and wait for the day and the hour in the confidence of God's promise.  I close with these inspiring words from the Book of Revelation:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, see the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God, 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 cease, for these things have passed away.”   Amen 

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