Good morning, Friends!
Welcome to the season of Advent! If you read your December newsletter, you know that Advent is the season of light.
This is a dark time of the year, so we push back against the darkness. We’ve got candles in the windows. We’ve got candles on the Advent wreath, even candles at home.
Jesus is the light of the world. We wait for him. We prepare for him. We sing about him. Jesus is the reason for the season.
Today I decided it was a little too early to hear about the angels and the shepherds. So, I picked a reading about waiting for Christ. It’s from the gospel of Mark, chapter 13.
“But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
[He’s quoting from various Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, Joel and Ezekiel.]
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”Mark 13:24-37
Sometimes I wonder what it is that we’re celebrating. What is it we’re really looking forward to?
Is it the actual birth of Jesus? Are we expecting Jesus to be born four weeks from tomorrow, on Christmas Day? A lot of our Christmas hymns make it seem as though it’s happening right now. Is that what we celebrate?
Or are we just celebrating the anniversary of Jesus’ birth? Is this his umpteenth annual birthday party? Maybe we should order a cake. There’d be a lot of candles on it, by now.
Christmas comes around at the same time every year, and we do many of the same things, sing the same songs, and bring back the same memories.
We get excited about Christmas, because it reminds us of the coming into the world of Christ, the first time.
You know, children love Christmas, because of all the presents and the excitement. We all like to hear the Christmas story, even when we’re grown-up, because it feels as though we’re all going back, to be part of the story ourselves.
But part of Christmas, an exciting part, can be anticipating the return of Jesus. We look back, but we can also look forward.
That’s one of the things adults do. We look ahead, we plan, and prepare. We need to ask ourselves what it would mean, for Jesus to come into the world today.
Part of why I chose this scripture, is that there’s been a lot of foolishness, a lot of silliness, and a lot of hysteria about the return of Christ.
If you watch the news, or listen to a few irresponsible preachers, people are saying that the war in Gaza is a sign of the Second Coming. I don’t believe that at all. I think the war is a purely human thing.
War isn’t God’s plan. And people who pretend it’s God’s plan scare me. The coming of Christ is just too much of an easy target for people who are mixed up, or hungry for power.
Jesus was absolutely clear. Jesus said, “If any one says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. . . no one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven. . .”
What Jesus said on this point was so clear. There will be false messiahs. There will be completely bogus prophets. Don’t believe them! Don’t be upset or led astray. “I have told you all this beforehand. . .”, Jesus said.
One of the earliest Christian prayers, handed down to us in the in the letters of Paul, has only one word. It’s a one-word prayer. It’s in Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus and his friends spoke.
That one-word prayer is, Maranatha, which means, “Our Lord, come!” or, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (You’ll find it in I Corinthians 16:22, Philippians 4:5, and Revelation 22:20)
We have a tendency to keep Christmas safely in the past. The early Christians were grounded in the past, but they were firmly looking towards the future.
One way of looking towards the future is what we call the apocalypse – the end of the world, a cosmic war, with rulers who have lost all sight of God. It’s a disaster.
Christmas reminds us that there’s another way of looking towards the future – a new beginning, birth, hope, fulfillment, joy.
Some Christians are apocalyptic Christians, and frankly, I’m not into that.
I feel that it’s better – it’s more scriptural, and it’s more in keeping with the good news – to be a Christmas Christian, to see the birth of Jesus, the coming of Christ into the world, as a different way of understanding how God works and what God does.
There a beautiful poem, by an anonymous writer from the 16th century. The poet says:
Thou shalt know Him when He comes,
not by any din of drums
Nor the vantage of His airs,
nor by anything He wears
Neither by His crown,
Nor His gown
But His presence known shall be
By the holy harmony
That His coming makes in thee.
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus says: “Learn from the parable of the fig tree. When its branches become tender and it starts to put out its leaves, then you know that summer is near. . .”
I looked up about fig trees, and for much of the year, the branches of the fig tree are brittle and rigid. But in the spring time, when the sap is rising, new life is flowing into them, the branches become tender, and flexible. Like all plants, the new fig leaves first show up as tiny buds, just barely visible.
This, says Jesus, is what my return is like. When things like this happen – when people become like the new leaf buds, when our lives can bend and bow – then we know that Christ is very near, at the very door. This is the way it really is.
Part of what Christmas is about is just to celebrate. Unmixed joy. Wholehearted celebration.
But another part of Christmas has to do with what Jesus says to us this morning. “Stay awake, watch, and pray, for you do not know when the time will come. It’s like people going on a journey. They leave their home and put the workers in charge, each one with a certain task, and the one who watches the front door are ordered to be ready.
So stay alert! You do not know when the owner of the house is coming – at dusk, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at daybreak. Don’t let the owner come home suddenly and catch you asleep. What I say to you, I say to everyone: watch!”
That message is truly a part of Christmas.
I wish that you could feel the drive, the force of what Jesus is saying. Be awake – watch – pray! It’s a commandment that Christ is giving us.
There’s another poem by the great writer, Howard Thurman, that you may have read before. Howard Thurman writes:
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace. . .
Giving gifts is big part of Christmas. We love our families, and there’s nothing wrong and everything right about celebrating.
But Jesus also said that we should give gifts to people who can’t return them, to people who can’t return the favor, to people who are poor, and lonely, and without friends, so that they can give thanks for Jesus’ birth, and bless God – that is what it’s all about, too.
Any time you help someone. Any time you reach out as a friend. Any time you try to lift someone up, that’s a Christmas gift. It’s a gift in Jesus’ name. And it’s a gift to Jesus himself.
Any time you make peace with someone. Any time you restore a friendship. Any time you straighten things out. That’s a gift, too.
Any time you bring light and hope. Any time you bring comfort, even if it’s just a card or a message, or spending time listening to someone. That’s a gift. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come into the world. He’s already here.
During the next few weeks, every one of us has the opportunity to be a light bearer, a light-bringer. Every one of us has the opportunity to be a gift-giver, and also a receiver of gifts.
This Christmas, more than ever, our prayer should be, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come into our hearts and minds. Come into our church and our home.
But as Jesus said today, the time he shows up will be a surprise. We may find Jesus in completely unexpected places and in completely unexpected ways.
As Jesus tells us – “Stay awake! Watch! And pray!”