Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent Year B - November 30 2008

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

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It is something I have observed on many occasions, as I am sure many of you, as parents, have also observed. You tell your children that there is a task they must do. You give them a time that it must be done by in order for something good to happen, perhaps, a visit to the library or a trip to the zoo. Then you leave them to it, walk away and get busy with tasks of your own.

You may walk back a little while later, just to check on how it’s going. To your dismay, your children not only have not started the task, they are playing a game. “Aren’t you going to do what I asked?” you say. And they reply, “Don’t worry! We’ll do it as soon as we’re done playing this game! We have lots of time!”

And of course, twenty minutes before the allotted time, you again return to see if the task is done and in panic, they look at you, look at the clock and start doing the task in a big hurry, because they have left it way too late.

Perhaps this is why the Father did not tell us, through Jesus, just when he would return. Precisely because we, as a human species, tend to put things off until it’s too late. Not everyone procrastinates as badly as children do; quite a few of us learn that putting things off until tomorrow the things that should be done today is not a good thing. So we spend a great deal of effort to try to do things that need to be done when they need to be done. But none of us are perfect at it. If we knew the time of the Master’s return, we might simply choose to do what we wanted to do, rather than those things which God wants us to do; to choose our own way over God’s way, much of the time.

But, the point is, that we don’t know precisely when Christ will return. Because God knows humans better than we know ourselves, the gift of not knowing the hour of Jesus’ return is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received. Because we do not know, we should feel the need to work at preparing for his return as if it were going to happen tomorrow, today, next week. We shouldn’t put off sharing the gospel with our family, friends or with strangers either, because tomorrow it might be too late.

The early Christians operated under this principal. That is why we see them sharing everything in common in the book of Acts. Why keep anything if the Lord would be returning at any minute? Surely there was no need to save for tomorrow, since likely tomorrow would bring the glorious return of our Savior! Didn’t Jesus say that this generation would not pass away before his return?

But their generation DID pass away and we have come to know that when Jesus said “this generation” that he didn’t mean it the way his original listeners thought he did. It is more probable that he meant that the generation that would not pass away before he returned was the generation that would see the signs of the end that Jesus gave us. Have we ceased to watch for the signs of his coming? Have we grown lax in our watchfulness? Have we forgotten the signs?

There is an interesting, though probably unintended, parallel in the the book “The Silver Chair”, one of the series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In the book, one of the main characters, Jill Pole, is given signs by Aslan by which she and Eustace, her companion from our world, will recognize the lost Prince Rillian of Narnia when they find him. Aslan tells Jill, “But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.”

As you might expect, what ends up happening is that Jill eventually forgets to repeat the signs to herself. She lets the physical concerns of cold, hunger and sleeping on the ground get in the way of remembering the signs. A warm bed, a place out of the wind, and a full stomach become much more important to her. The signs are forgotten, only to be remembered when it is almost too late.

How about us? Have we spent too much of our time concerned with earthly problems like how we are going to pay the bills, mow the grass or repair the roof? How can we know when we are getting close to the return of Christ? Do we even know or remember what the signs are?

I’d like to share this, from the April 1989 edition of the devotional, “Today in the Word”:

"Biblical prophecy provides some of the greatest encouragement and hope available to us today. Just as the Old Testament is saturated with prophecies concerning Christ’s first advent, so both testaments are filled with references to the second coming of Christ. One scholar has estimated that there are 1,845 references to Christ’s second coming in the Old Testament, where 17 books give it prominence. In the 260 chapters of the New Testament, there are 318 references to the second advent of Christ—an amazing 1 out of every 30 verses. Twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event. For every prophecy in the Bible concerning Christ’s first advent, there are 8 which look forward to His second!"

The most amazing prophecy of the second advent has already taken place: it is the reformation of the nation Israel in 1948 as was prophesied in Isaiah 66:8, in Ezekiel 37 and in our own reading today when Jesus said, "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” What is hidden in Jesus’ words for us is that the fig tree was, and still is today, a symbol for the nation of Israel.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that before his return that the gospel would be preached to all nations, something which we are very close to achieving, if we have not already achieved it. He tells us that there will be wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence and earthquakes. Granted, these things have always been in the world, leading some to look for Christ’s return in every generation. While there may not be more of these things today, I believe what Jesus meant was that we would be more aware of them. And as anyone can see, the increasing power of the media today to report these sorts of news stories to us allows us to be aware of more of them than we ever could before.

These signs, and more that I don’t have time to mention today, were given to us, that we might know when we were getting close. Therefore, we really do need to heed the words of the reading: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

But even though we may be approaching that day, we have no need to be afraid. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, we have no need to fear the return of the Master. It is what we have been, in what has seemed a very slow and grinding process, working our way towards for the past 2000 years.

Now, more than ever, we must be awake. Any procrastination we may have been indulging in must be forgotten. While it may not happen today or tomorrow, next month, next year or ten years from now, we should be working as if it will happen at any moment.

In this season of Advent, as we await the symbolic coming of the Christ child, let us not forget the more important waiting that we have done for centuries: the wait for the return of Christ. “Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

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