Alert but not alarmed
Sermon preached at Enmore, 1st Sunday in Advent, 3rd. December 2017
Readings: Isaiah 63.15–64.12; 1 Cor. 1.3–9; Mark 13.33–37
The word, ‘Advent’ means coming or arrival but Advent for most people means the time to prepare for Christmas- it means end of year activities, Speech Days, Christmas pageants, Christmas parties, and shopping. For Christians, the business of the season means that it is often difficult finding time to reflect on the meaning of the incarnation: the great mystery at the heart of our faith that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’ But on this first Sunday in Advent, the focus of our New Testament readings is not so much on the first coming of Christ but on his Second Coming, when in the words of our Advent collect, “he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.”
Growing up in Baptist Church we were often being reminded of the Second coming of Christ. It was a constant theme in sermons and once a year we had a whole weekend devoted to this topic, usually involving a visiting Pastor from the Southern Baptist Convention in America. These visitors were particularly wedded to a view of the Second Coming of Christ known as the rapture. On the basis of a very literal interpretation of a couple of verses in Revelation Chapter 20 they believed that Christ’s Second Coming would be preceded by all the Christians on earth being suddenly swept up into heaven leaving the world to a desolate future. As a child, living in Seaforth and sometimes travelling on the bus with my Mum, to and from Wynyard where my Dad worked, the possibility of losing our bus driver while the old double-decker was travelling at speed down the Spit Hill was a truly frightening prospect. You wanted to be sure you were on the side of the angels’ in that scenario.
Becoming an Anglican many years later I was surprised to find that one rarely heard a sermon about Christ’s Second Coming. It was usually avoided or glossed over despite its appearance in the Scripture readings and the creeds. Today the situation has changed and frightening scenarios about the world’s future and apocalyptic language are now coming from the mouths of scientists who warn of the danger to the planet from climate change, and our continuing pollution and exploitation of our environment. If you read the earlier part of Mark 13 you will find Jesus’ warning of future events: “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places and famine.” We hear some of our scientists painting pictures of the planet’s future in terms not unlike the words of Jesus.
So what are we to believe about the Second Coming of Christ and how should we prepare for the future? What does it mean to watch and to be alert? Today’s readings may give us some clues. First it has been pointed out by recent scholars like Tom Wright that the emphasis in Mark 13 is not on the distant future but on the immediate future. The chapter begins with one of Jesus’ disciples pointing out to him the beauty and magnificence of the temple. His unexpected response is to make the dramatic statement that everything they are looking at will be torn down and there will not be one stone left on another. It was an incredibly bold statement. Imagine a politician or some other public figure declaring to an audience that the Harbour Bridge will be torn down and swept into the harbour. It would be front page news. The temple was a far greater iconic building than the Harbour Bridge is to us. It represented to the Jewish believer God’s presence with his people. The loss of the first Temple centuries before had plunged Israel into a long period of self-examination and reflection- their whole identity had been challenged and brought into question. Knowing the forces at work in the Israel of his day and the growing talk of rebellion against Rome, Jesus could see that his own generation faced a similar prospect. The hope for the future lay not in war but in repentance and renewal through trust in God’s Messiah. Much of the language of Mark 13 can be read as having reference to the cataclysmic events of the second half of the first century: including the increasing instability in the Roman Empire: after the suicide of Nero in 68 A.D. four Emperors followed in rapid succession and the much vaunted ‘Roman Peace’ proclaimed by Augustus was corroded from the inside. And in Israel there was the ill- fated Jewish revolt bringing on the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D.70. This reading of chapter 13 of Mark makes sense of the otherwise puzzling verse, “Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
But although the focus in this chapter is clearly on the immediate future for Israel the chapter ends with a call to watchfulness, to be alert for that future day when the Lord will return. Jesus says, “Be on guard, be alert, you do not know when that time will come.” These verses are relevant to Christians in every age including our own. The New Testament affirms that history has a goal- it is not meaningless but is moving towards the coming of the Son of Man when He will complete what he has begun and fulfil all that He has promised. Every generation of Christians has been able to point to events which are unsettling and which could be taken as fulfilment of Jesus’ words in Mark 13 and similar passages.
Many times Christians have echoed the words of Isaiah from today’s Old Testament reading: “Oh,that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you.” Isaiah had witnessed the destruction of the first temple and the exile of God’s people, he longed for the day of redemption. We live in a troubled world where wars, and natural disasters are always with us. These things should not lead us to despair or unsettle our resolve to be found ready for that day when we will stand before the Son of Man. To borrow words of a previous Prime Minister, ‘we are to be alert but not alarmed.’ We are not to speculate about times and dates or likely scenarios but nor are we to be complacent and distracted. Luke’s Gospel has a chapter (21), very like Mark 13 which concludes with words (v.34) that Eugene Peterson paraphrases in a way we can all relate to: “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation be dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise that Day is going to take you by complete surprise.” The season of Advent reminds us that we live in the time between times, between what is dying and what is being born, between the already of Christ’s kingdom begun on earth and the ‘not yet’ of its fulfilment with his return.
How then should Christians live? Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul encourages them with the words, You do not lack any spiritual gifts as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Much of our waiting in life, is boring and tedious-we wait for a bus that is late, we wait in the doctor’s waiting room, we wait for the nbn. But our waiting for the Son of Man is not like that-it is eager, intentional waiting, knowing that we have a task to do. We live in obedience to the commands Jesus has given us. We are to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. We are to share by word and action the Good News we have received of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are to preserve and protect the earth that God has entrusted to our care. We are called to be those who prepare our world for its coming deliverance and renewal. In the midst of our summer haze and the busyness of the Advent season, Jesus summons us to wakefulness, to stand up and look up. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Amen.