December 3, 2017 – The First Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Today we begin the season of Advent, a time of preparation for our yearly remembrance of the birth of Jesus. Before I speak about Advent, I think it is important to consider an aspect of our lesson from the Gospel of Mark which you may find troubling and which has vexed Christians for many centuries.
In this passage Jesus is speaking about the end times, when the Son of Man will return in power and glory. There will be signs in nature that the end is near: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Just as when the fig tree puts forth its leaves, people know that summer is near, so when these signs appear, people will know that the end is near. Then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” The troubling question is this: was Jesus wrong? And the answer is “yes” and “no.” Clearly the end of time and the final coming of the kingdom of God did not occur during Jesus’ generation. Jesus was wrong about the timing of the end.
This highlights an important theological point related to the birth of Jesus which we are preparing to celebrate. This is the mystery of the Incarnation: God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul described what happened in these words (Philippians 2:5-8): “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” God emptied himself and willingly accepted the limitations of human life, even death. Jesus was limited in many of the ways human beings are limited, including having limited knowledge and a perspective shaped in part by the particulars of his time and place on earth.
On the other hand, as Christians we assert with full faith that in terms of the “big picture” of human life and God’s interaction with human beings and all God’s creation, in terms of general principles, Jesus was not wrong. In today’s passage from Mark Jesus speaks of the end of the world as we know it, which is a world full of suffering. The message here is “good news”: at the end, God will come and set things right forever. Light will overcome darkness. Life will overcome death. Love will overcome hatred. Mercy, peace, and righteousness will finally have their endless day. All because God will come with the salvation only God can bring. This is the “big picture” that Jesus taught and that we believe is true. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead reveals this truth, a sign of salvation.
Now to the season of Advent, a season of preparation, a time of waiting. What are we preparing for? What are we waiting for? These are important questions to consider here, in church, in an hour when we attend to God. What are we preparing for? What are we waiting for? You may think that “Christmas” is the obvious answer. That isn’t a “wrong” answer, but I would suggest there is a much better answer, and today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark points to that answer. We are waiting for the coming of Christ. Not the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. That is in the past. At Christmas we remember that past event because of its astounding meaning. But we can’t really wait for something that has already happened. We wait, with hope, for something that will happen in the future – the coming of Christ, a new heaven and a new earth. And while we wait, Jesus instructs us to “keep awake,” to do the work that has been entrusted to us by God, and to be on the lookout for God.
During the next three weeks we will all be preparing for Christmas. Here, in church, in an hour when we attend to God, I ask you to think about what you will do and how you will spend your resources of time and energy, of talent and treasure as you prepare for our celebration of the birth of Jesus. And I ask you to think about how what you do to prepare for Christmas relates to preparing for the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God. It is challenging to think about these things and even more challenging to change what we do during this season, if we decide that change is called for. Challenging, but faithful.
In the church today is the beginning of a new year. This may be the right time for us to think more deeply about the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God. This may be the right time to pray the prayer attributed to the 13th century English Bishop, Richard of Chichester: “Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.” I hope that this prayer will inform all our lives during the days of Advent and always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.