You can view this sermon and its worship service on our Facebook page, Congregational Church of Northridge Church – UCC
Advent Sunday of Hope
Mark 13:23-27, 32-37, Isaiah 64:1-4
November 29, 2020
This time of year, we expect to see greeting cards and Facebook posts filled with cheery sentiments.
But the traditional readings for the first Sunday of Advent are always apocalyptic prophesies like the ones Beckie just read.
It’s tempting to skip those passages and turn to something seemingly more hopeful, but actually, hope is exactly what these are about.
First, they set the stage for the birth of a real Savior by reminding us that this world of conflict and turmoil is not the end of the story.
So, Advent begins by revealing a great wound: the damage inflicted by sin and evil … we have to face that reality before proceeding to Christmas, because if we don’t Christmas will mean nothing but glittering lights and a shopping spree.
But as we do face the reality of needing a Savior, then we welcome his birth this Christmas
If you think about it, if God had not faced that fact then He would not have sent Jesus in the first place.
Many years ago, I had a boil on the back of my neck.
It started out as a small pimple, but then it got infected, swelled and hurt when I touched it.
But since it was on the back of my neck, I didn’t see it all the time, but when I started to feel dizzy one afternoon, I called my dad to take me to Kaiser.
It probably was only a half hour or so, but as dizziness quickly advanced to delirium it felt like an eternity before he arrived.
A couple of minutes after getting to the ER waiting room, I dropped to the floor like a rag doll.
I wouldn’t recommend that as a way to cut to the front of the line, but it did get everyone’s attention – and after the doctor lanced the boil and packed it and me with antibiotics I felt fine.
He later told me that if I had not sought help when I did that I likely would have died because the infection had begun to spread into my brain.
My trip to Kaiser is an Advent story: although we often pretend otherwise, every corner of our whole world is in a diseased state and needs help.
That’s why the Advent season opens with apocalyptic passages like Isaiah 64 and Mark 13.
The gospel setting for Jesus’ words was shortly after he’d arrived in Jerusalem after his long trip from Galilee.
Along the way, he’d shown time and again through miracles and healings that the Kingdom of God was breaking into our corrupted world.
And, he taught us about the kind of life God designed us to live.
Jesus was the answer to Isaiah’s ancient call to God.
Isaiah 64:1 O that You, (Lord God) would tear open the heavens and come down,
But the 1%-ers of his day, the religious establishment, and the hardened hearts of the people themselves conspired to shut Jesus out.
Mark must have particularly remembered Jesus’ alarming words because just a few years before he wrote his gospel, the Roman army massacred the people of Jerusalem and completely dismantled the Temple.
As Jesus had predicted, not one stone was left in place.
The center of their faith life was gone.
Cheery sentiments would fall flat for people facing such a crisis, but prophetic descriptions of God coming down from the heavens to bring judgement upon the oppressors reminded them that God cared and that their suffering was just one chapter in God’s bigger story.
We have not faced anything of that magnitude, yet we do find ourselves at least temporarily without our “temple”.
Our newsfeeds report thousands of daily deaths, and we helplessly stand on the sidelines as angry voices from both sides of our social divide threaten violence.
2020 is our creation, plain and simple, but the fact that we made it, doesn’t mean we can get out of it.
Rather, the extraordinary events of this year illustrate with stinging clarity our need to be rescued from the tentacles of sin that have reached into every corner of our lives.
Joe Biden or Pfizer Pharmaceuticals are not our saviors.
They may solve some immediate problems – and I pray that they do – but the underlying issues go way deeper.
From beginning to end, Psalm 80 echoes the voices of people awaiting God’s rescue that seemed delayed.
It concludes by repeating its refrain, Psalm 80:19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Like Psalm 80, Advent forces us to face an unresolved tension.
We hold that the Lord is faithful, yet that faithfulness remains hidden.
Salvation is a hope but not yet a reality.
So, we, too, may feel a bit like Mark as he remembered Jesus’ prophesy in the midst of his own national catastrophe.
But what do we do with this?
St. Augustine wrote, “Hope has two daughters. One daughter’s name is Anger; the other daughter’s name is Courage. Anger at what is but ought not to be, and Courage to make what ought to be come to be.”
It is easy to see “what is but ought not to be” and then get stuck in anger.
People ought to follow public health guidelines.
Both parties ought to come together to get unemployment and pandemic relief to the people.
And I’m sure you can tick off any number of ways that your friends, colleagues or loved ones ought to be different.
We can get stuck there and then spend our days being angry, cynical or venting on Facebook.
That is where the majority of people are stuck and it is one reason we are now experiencing such a militant political divide, a national epidemic of depression, and increased rates of separations and pending divorces.
With the birth of Jesus also begins the ticking of time until his return – and do you want to invest your remaining time and then to account to God for a life you left stuck in anger, judgement or cynicism?
But remember that anger has a twin sister called Courage.
Courage may feel anger but it doesn’t stop there to let anger fester.
For Christians, courage comes from seeing where God cares enough to break through our corrupted world and then to get on board with what He’s doing.
Advent is a route to that courage because it invites us to celebrate Jesus in history, in mystery and in majesty.
In history, we read gospels to absorb Jesus’ teachings so we can make them our own, and to see his ultimate victory over evil and death.
In mystery, we discover that Christ is with us when two or more gather in his name, when we work for justice, and when we, ourselves, grow in Jesus’ values of love and forgiveness.
In majesty, we anticipate the return of Christ in the fullness of time to set things right and to account for our lives.
As I was saying a couple of weeks ago, our lives are bracketed by two events: the coming of Jesus at Christmas and His return in the fulness of time.
Everything you do in the “between times” with your life is important for you and for those who are with you.
We learn to love, to forgive, to be patient by how we live in an imperfect world with imperfect relationships.
That matters here and now.
And it also matters because it molds the kind of people we become.
Eventually, when we reach the other bracket of our life – when we come face-to-face with God – who we became in this life is what we’ll be accountable for.
The Old Testament is full of prophetic and apocalyptic passages, but through Jesus God went a step further.
There’s a popular children’s sermon about a man who had magical powers to change himself into anything.
The strange thing about this man was that he was fascinated by ants.
He had an ant hill in his back yard where he would watch them for hours on end, how each one specialized in a particular task, how they communicated with each other about where to find food, and their incredible strength for carrying morsels of bread and supplies back to their nest.
He fell in love with the ants so much that he would shout at them, “I love you.”
But no matter how loud he shouted or how eloquently he explained his love they just went on about their lives as if he didn’t even exist.
At other times he tried to warn them about a coming storm that would flood their nests, but no matter how hard he pleaded they didn’t prepare themselves.
In this children’s sermon the teacher then asks the kids, “How could this magical man ever tell the ants how much he loved them?”
And of course, all the kids would shout back, “Become one of them,” which is exactly the point.
Advent is about God caring so much about the corruption of our hearts and of the world that He left Heaven to be with us by being born of human parents.
And Advent reminds us that there is a time coming – which may feel like an eternity but is in God’s perfect timing – when Christ will return.
At that time, tears will be wiped away and suffering will end, and we each will come face to face with our Creator who will ask what we did with our life.
Not about our trophies, but our hearts.
How did we embrace life?
How did we serve the hurting and vulnerable as Jesus taught?
What qualities and attitudes did we develop?
In Mark 13, Jesus warns that we don’t know when that day of reckoning will come.
So, live like Jesus will return next week.
Seriously, if you knew that your life would end next week, what would you do today and this coming week?
Are there relationships you’d heal?
Are there people you’d want to reassure of your love?
Would you finish a project you started years ago?
Would you take a risk to try something you’ve always wanted to do?
Would you unburden yourself of some lingering guilt?
St. Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is the person who is fully alive.”
Advent encourages us to go and be fully alive today.
Before it’s too late.