The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, December 3, 2023)
Rev. William Gaskill, Guest Preacher
For Whom Are You Waiting?
Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Why can’t we just skip it? Passages like the one we just read from Mark tend to be packed with symbolism, metaphors, and quite a bit of urgent intensity. They also tend to conflate prophesies that have different times and events as their target. It can be hard to sort out.
For example, our text from Mark 13 speaks of the destruction of the Temple which in fact happened in 70 AD. Jesus said that generation would not pass away until all his prophesy came true. And it did occur the way he said it would. Jesus has a track record of telling the truth. So maybe we should pay attention to the other part of these prophetic verses.
Right up against the prediction about the destruction of the Temple we find a description of Christ’s return at an unknown and surprising moment, at the end of the age, the time of judgment and re-creation, the time of the removal of all sin, wickedness, and even death from the world. That moment will see the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. No more sin. No more sorrow. No more crying. No more dying.
But that arrival is predicted to occur amidst a great upheaval. Cosmic signs in heaven and on earth, unbridled chaos among people and nations, while God’s angels gather all the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. What are we to make of all this?
It is so tempting to go off in search of something a little easier to deal with. Here’s why I don’t. I’ve made a decision to follow the lectionary and have done so now for quite a few years. When I first started preaching I was an immature individual: Just me and the Holy Spirit; who needs a table telling me what to preach? Who needs all that church traditionalism? I would simply go and select my favorite texts and expound upon them. Psalm 23, Romans 8, the Gospel of John; many of those texts almost preach themselves. I guess I hit a dry spell and went looking for some help and I found it in of all places, the lectionary.
But these apocalyptic verses kept popping up and they are quite another matter. They often show up in the lectionary and they don’t preach themselves. I’ve come to acknowledge that the creation of the lectionary is a pastoral tool to help the church to interact with all of scripture, not just our pet verses. The lectionary takes us on a forced march dealing with the whole counsel of God every three years.
The use of prescribed readings goes at least as far back as worship in the Jewish synagogues even before the time of Christ. The practice was already in use when Jesus went to his hometown synagogue, read the prescribed reading for that day from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah which predicted the good news concerning the day of the Lord and of the favor of God. Then he sat down and all eyes were upon him.
It was a customary privilege for the one who read from the scripture to make a comment on what had been read. Then Jesus had the audacity to say, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” I guess they’d become accustomed to hearing that text as so much pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by and by with no notion that one day, maybe even that day, that the prophesy would be fulfilled, and certainly not by someone they knew. So the hometown crowd began to cancel Jesus: “Hey wait; isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Didn’t he grow up right here, playing with our children? Don’t we know his family? Just last year we paid him to make us a new table and chairs. What’s he trying to pull?”
Jesus began to chastise them for their unbelief. And their enraged response was to try to throw him off a nearby cliff. Who knew lectionary preaching could be so dangerous? Can’t we just skip it? We could but I’m not going to.
Every year, Advent begins with texts dealing with the final coming of Jesus. Just when we’re all looking ahead to the birth at the beginning of our story, to the adoration we sing about. Here’s the little baby Jesus, so cute and cuddly, a human in miniature. And in our day, even the baby who is so approachable and non-threatening, is too much for the culture we live in.
The world wants the sentimental feeling they get, rocking around the Christmas tree and smelling chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Lawns are crowded with Grinches that stole Christmas, blow-up snow men (or should I, must I, say snow-persons?), and inflatable Santas who are making lists, checking them twice in order to record who is naughty or nice. But even if his records are clear, even the naughty seem to escape the dreaded lump of coal in their stockings which have been hung by the chimney with care. A good time is being had by all as we cultivate the art of missing the point.
Well meaning Christians put stickers on their cars which say, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” To which I say, “Christ never left Christmas.” We should say, “Put Christians back in Christ.”
About the only one so long ago who suspected trouble at the birth of Jesus was Herod, who was a violent, paranoid potentate. His belief coupled with superstition made him even more vicious than he already was.
A few shepherds got in on the drama only after a whole choir of angels grabbed their attention, first with fear, then with awe and wonder. A little while later, a few Magi came from afar to see what was up only after the night sky which never changes much did change ever so slightly and, since they paid attention to the night sky, they noticed and got in motion.
Many of us today are somewhat lukewarm in our response to Christmas because we’ve been lulled to sleep. It’s even worse when it comes to the Second Coming of Christ. We don’t know what to make of the prophesies about it.
It is to people like us that Jesus said, “Wake up! Be alert! Stay awake! You don’t know when the time will come. You don’t know when the master of the house will come. What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”
The master might show up in the evening, a time when you think the day is over. Some call it happy hour. Just when you think you are done for another day, you made it through, there’s nothing more you can do, in that time when you give up, or that season when you let your guard down, when you are spiritually tired, here he comes: the master may arrive then. Be alert!
Or perhaps he’ll come at midnight. I once heard T.D. Jakes preach about the suffering that comes in darkness of night followed by the joy comes with the morning. In his inimitable style he worked with the refrain, “But sometimes, it’s a long night.” He’s right about that!
Hundreds of years ago, Saint John of the Cross wrote about the dark night of the soul. The dark night is a season when all of your spiritual crutches lose their ability to hold you up. It is a season of desolation where the darkness is what compels you to hunger and thirst for the living God. In that season, the apocalyptic arrival to Jesus Christ would be most welcome, if for nothing else but the relief that bright light brings when we are lost in the dark. Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
Or the master might show up at cockcrow. I once farm sat for a friend. He had chickens and a rooster. That rooster began to crow about 3:30 or 4 AM. I woke up saying, “Doesn’t that rooster know what time it is? Why doesn’t he go back to sleep?” And that bird brain was probably saying, “Doesn’t that silly human know enough to be alert? Morning is coming soon.”
I’m reminded instantly of Peter’s threefold denial that he even knew Jesus and of his bitter weeping in the darkest night of his life. In that outer darkness Peter’s pride began to be crucified.
What if the master were to show up just when you are like Peter, in some struggle with your own fears, with your own overestimation of your spiritual courage, with your own failures that lead you into denial, with your own sins? Would you run for cover elsewhere like Adam and Eve, or will you run toward Jesus for mercy and forgiveness?
Or Jesus said the master may even come at dawn. Dawn signifies a new day breaking, a new beginning, an array of possibilities for living a full life. What if the master comes, having given you a brand new day and finds you asleep, not ready to take up what he is offering to you generously and freely?
If we will be honest, we must admit that most of us have had some experience of all these conditions at one time or another. Many times we are distracted, many times preoccupied, many times just in deep spiritual slumber and not cognizant of the Lord’s presence and divine intentions for our hours and days. We get to experience all of this before the final day of his appearing. Being awake and alert is how we are supposed to live every day we are given to be on this earth before Jesus comes to make all things new.
Do a little thought experiment with me. Suppose you knew that you only had one year left to live. How would you spend the next twelve months? What things would you like to hold closely in the time left? What things would no longer matter to you? What would you surrender? What would you let go? What would you worry about? Who would you forgive? Who would you tell how much they mean to you? To whom would you say, “I love you?”
Now shorten the time to six months, then down to two months, then to two weeks, then to two days; I’m not going to press you down to two hours. Do you think you’d make some changes? My question is, “What are you waiting for?” The very hairs on your head are numbered by God, meaning God has meticulous concern for your welfare. Your days are also numbered. Don’t waste another one.
One of the reasons many people don’t think much about the second coming of Jesus Christ is that too much time has passed since he said what we just read. It is wise to remember that one day is as a thousand years to the Lord of time, and a thousand years are as one day. Maybe what Jesus meant was, “I’ll be back in a couple of days, be ready.” Now I’m just being silly. No one knows the day or the hour, and that includes you and me. Our job is to be ready.
I’m sure you have a Bible somewhere around the house that includes scriptural cross references for certain words. I came across one for the word awake that sent me to Revelation 3 and the risen Lord’s letter to the church in Sardis. The opening line is devastating: “You have the name of being alive but you are dead.” What a withering diagnosis. It’s possible for whole congregations to lose what they have and live on appearances only for quite awhile. They are skating atop the little that remains of their original zeal for Jesus Christ. People may be fooled but the Lord is not.
I recently read of a study done by a sociologist of religion who was looking for the reasons that North Americans are avoiding and ignoring the church in rapidly increasing numbers. The low hanging fruit is to blame it on the pandemic. Even those who are still interested prefer to worship in their jammies with a cup of coffee in their hand.
Before the pandemic hit we might have expected someone to say we’re too conservative, another to say it’s because we’re too liberal, yet another to say we’ve abandoned the Bible, while still others would say, “Who cares? The Bible is too old to be relevant.”
So I was surprised to learn that one of his conclusions was something that I’d never heard before. Based upon responses to his research he said people left the church, not because they didn’t believe what the church taught (many did), but because the people in the church don’t believe what they say they believe.
Think about that, not just for a minute. Take it home and mull in over carefully. Then come back together. Couple it with the answers to the questions in our thought experiment about how long you have to live. Couple them both with the belief we say we have that the Risen Lord Jesus Christ is someday returning to judge the world and to make all things new. See what the Holy Spirit says to you. What does the Holy Spirit say about the church, about your congregation? Stay awake! Pay attention! Be alert.
Here’s one thing I am fairly certain about. Earthly congregations come and go, denominations live and die, but the Church of Jesus Christ is his Body and Bride and God intends for that and all of us who are the gathered elect to live with God forever. As the Heidelberg Catechism has it, “The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
Jesus Christ said to the Christians in Sardis: I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you have received and heard; obey it and repent.
Who would have imagined that the cute little baby in the manger would grow up to talk like that to those of us who claim to adore him, worship him, and who seek to serve him as his chosen disciples?
So we begin Advent once again with the Hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall ransom captive Israel.
Come quickly Lord Jesus.
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