Why Are We Watching?

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Why Are We Watching?

Scriptures:

First Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Second Lesson: Mark 13:24-37

Every year at Advent, the lectionary reminds us of a particular reality. When we talk about the advent of Christ into the world we are faced with two realities, two time periods:

In the first case, the easy one to celebrate, we remember the Baby Jesus, born at Christmas and all that he would mean to us and the world;

But we also have to address the second case; the things Jesus said about the coming of the Son of Man; all those many passages that challenge us to wonder about things like the Second Coming or what it means for God’s realm to beak into the world.

And this part makes us uncomfortable, at least in the more liberal churches, because we don’t want to buy into some of those lurid and judgmental visions we often associate with our more literalist brothers and sisters.

The fact is that Jesus did speak of dramatic things: the idea of God’s realm breaking into human history to replace the violence and corruption of the world Jesus was living in, in an occupied state under the thumb of a superpower where state-sponsored terrorism, like crucifixions, was used to keep the people under control. And where national and religious leaders were persuaded not to rock the boat.

In recent weeks we’ve talked about the Sermon on the Mount and all the teachings Jesus gave us about what values God really wants to see in our lives and in our world and how these values are in real conflict with basic assumptions humans have made for centuries.

The conflict in values is pretty big, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this would be expressed in apocalyptic terms, sometimes even in terms of physical conflict, where those in power resist the change because they like the status quo.

Some of the apocalyptic readings, though, are more complex, like today’s lesson from Mark.

We are told to be watchful; to look for the signs, to be alert and ready because we would have no warning when the Son of Man would arrive. Some important bits we have sorted out: The Son of Man is an image from Daniel and represents the perfect human sent by God to restore justice to Israel and to rule over a restored world.

It is hard to know exactly who Jesus meant when he used that phrase, but as Christians we have decided that Jesus himself is the Son of Man and that his return to establish a rule of justice and peace is what we are looking forward to.

To be fair, some interpret this as the end of the world; when the old corrupt creation is replaced by the new creation of Revelations. That violent image came many years later when Roman persecution was at a blood-drenched peak. Jesus himself was talking about the restoration of creation, not its destruction.

Jesus isn’t naïve; he gives warnings of strife and conflict, like in today’s reading. These are signs that the time is coming for God’s reign to begin.

There’s a promise that the generation alive and hearing Jesus would see the arrival of the Son of Man, although that is balanced with the statement that only God knew when it would actually happen.

Clearly, the generation that knew Jesus has long passed, so if that statement were true it would mean that God’s realm has broken into the world, but in a spiritual way, not a physical way.

That’s one interpretation that many Christians really like. It’s why we re-set the calendar to start at Jesus’ birth. Back in the days when we had BC and AD for dates, AD stood for Anno Domine: the Year of Our Lord, an explicitly Christian claim that Jesus has ruled for 2 thousand years and that our job, as Christians, is to extend the influence of Jesus wherever we can.

It doesn’t rule out the idea of a second coming but it makes room for it to be seen in a spiritual way. There is space for a physical break into creation by God, or there is the personal break we each have at death where the rest of creation goes on but we meet Jesus and God ourselves, not in some mass judgement day, but in a very personal situation of leaving this life and entering the next.

With either approach our waiting loses its edge, doesn’t it? So why are we waiting? What are we waiting for?

If you expect an end-of-the-world sort of arrival for the Son of Man – we’ve been waiting almost 2000 years for that to happen – it doesn’t feel very urgent anymore. There are people who try to predict that day

and make money with the books that predict the end times, but that manufactured urgency is proven false again and again. And it’s hard to keep alert.

If you think about it as a personal judgement day, the time when you leave this life, waiting for that is exhausting, and not good for your mental health in most cases.

Our whole society is death-averse. We don’t even want to talk about it, so we live as if we are immortal and when mortality looks us square in the face, as it has done during this pandemic, we get really stressed out. In some cases we deny it all, which helps nobody.

Perhaps there’s another possible interpretation, though. If we are part of Jesus’ ministry, bringing a changed perspective, working to create justice and create a world where the meek really do inherit the earth;

if that’s what we expect from the arrival of the Son of Man and if we do believe that Jesus is that guy, then what we should be on the watch for are those opportunities that can arise every day: to make a difference; to demonstrate and apply those principles that Jesus taught.

We can be on the watch for those places where God wants to break in, to break the circuit of injustice, prejudice, abuse, corruption; to break all the assumptions we don’t question and offer new ways of thinking that really do treat all people as beloved children of God.

Our calling, then, would be like the doorkeeper in Jesus’ lesson: to be ready to open the door of our situation, our culture, our world; to the change God wants to create through us.

That kind of watchfulness doesn’t have to be stressful. It does call for creativity and an open mind and heart so we can see the opportunities as they arise. That kind of watching and waiting isn’t about the end of the world, it is about the transformation of creation and it’s not a one-time event. It can happen every day.

We can be part of the arrival of God’s realm in this world. We can help this vision break into our reality, where the second coming is not an event but rather a process that we help to create.

If we watch and wait for those opportunities, and then make a point of living out Jesus’ teachings, we can become the change God wants to see in the world, and the process of Advent will continue in us.

Amen.

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