Sermon: "Longing, Hoping, Watching, Waiting"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
Do you remember your excitement as a child with the approach of Christmas? We did not have Amazon.com, but we had the Sears-Roebuck catalog. As Christmas approached, the toy section took on a “well-worn” appearance. Christmas Eve would finally come, we would fitfully drift off to sleep, and at long last, Christmas morning! In our instant-gratification and extended-credit society where we are encouraged to have it now, we tend to lose sight of what it means to dream, to hope, to watch, and to wait. The Covid-19 pandemic might restore some of the experience of hoping, watching, and waiting.
Our reading from Isaiah is “a communal psalm of lament … the cry of the Israelites … who had returned to Judah after the Persian Cyrus had conquered Mesopotamia (539 BCE). … The Temple and walls of Jerusalem still lay in the disarray left by the Babylonian conquest” (Hamm: https://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvB112920/theword_hamm.html ). Imagine that you are one of those ancient Israelites; with a heavy heart, you are standing amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. In that frame of mind, consider the words of the prophet: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence … to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (Isaiah 64.1-3; NRSV). In these few verses, the presence of God is mentioned three times. The last time undoubtedly refers to the theophany at Mt. Sinai when Moses went up the mountain and received the Law.
In Isaiah, the people confessed their sin (“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.); they noted their failure to call upon God (“There is no one who calls on your name”); and they acknowledged the withdrawal of God’s protection (“you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity). As we noted last week in our consideration of Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations, the consequences we suffer are not a matter of God’s execution of wrath and vengeance as judgment; they are more a matter of experiencing the natural consequences of our sin. When we choose to live apart from love, we experience darkness and the gnashing of teeth. Even so, the prophet acknowledges God’s sovereignty over God’s people and God’s care for us: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64.6-8; NRSV). The prophet concludes, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (Isaiah 64.12; NRSV.) The people are hoping, watching, waiting; they are longing for restoration, longing to experience God anew: “O that you might tear open the heavens and come down” (Ibid.).
In the psalm appointed for today, restoration is repeatedly emphasized. In verses 3, 7, and 18, we read: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (BCP).
The readings from Isaiah and the Psalm reflect the consequences of the people’s failure to remain in relationship with God – lament, longing for restoration, hoping, watching, and waiting.
In contrast, the reading from I Corinthians describes the special relationship Christian’s have when they abide in Jesus Christ. After acknowledging the grace God bestows upon God’s people through Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul writes: “For in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind … so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1.5-9; NRSV). Bear in mind that the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Pentecost have already occurred – these are past events. Paul is speaking of a future event, of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ when Christ’s reign shall be fully established. Christians commonly refer to this as the “Second Coming.” These events address the objective, historical perspective. But from a subjective, existential perspective, we should not overlook the fact that Christ comes to us repeatedly – in fact, Christ desires to take up permanent residence in our hearts and minds. Are we longing, hoping, waiting, watching?
What about Mark 13? To be frank, Mark 13 raises several questions. The chapter opens with Jesus and the disciples leaving the temple. The disciples were awestruck, and they exclaimed: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13.1-2; NRSV). A bit later, as they were seated on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, the inner group, quietly said to Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished” (Mark 13.3-4; NRSV).
Jesus told them to beware lest someone lead them astray for many would come claiming to be the Messiah. When they hear of wars and rumors of wars they are not to be alarmed. Ultimately, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13.5-8; NRSV). Note that none of these things are the result of God’s judgment; they are simply natural and political events. When we stop to think about it – aren’t wars and rumors of wars, strife between nations, earthquakes and famines the norm. In our age of instantaneous global communication, such events are constantly in the news. A few verses later, Jesus adds, “The good news [the gospel] must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13. 10; NRSV). Jesus tells the disciples to expect persecution, but assures them those who persevere, those who endure to the end, will be saved (Mark 13.9-13; NRSV).
Jesus then spoke of a “desolation set up where it ought not to be” (Mark 13.14; NRSV). Scholars believe this may refer to when Antiochus IV Epiphanes installed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in 168 B.C., or to Caligula’s order issued in 40 A.D. that a statue of himself as Jupiter be placed in the Temple (Haslam: http://www.montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/badv1l.shtml ). In either case imperial powers in opposition to God’s kingdom would usher in eras of persecution. During such times, Jesus advised, people should flee to the countryside and the mountains. Again, Jesus stressed that false messiahs would appear on the scene along with false prophets and false signs. As for the disciples – they were to “be alert” (Mark 13.14-23; NRSV).
Today’s gospel picks up immediately following this discourse. Here we read “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13.24-26; NRSV) and the elect will be gathered.
Jesus cites a fig tree putting forth tender shoots as an example of reading the signs of the times – yes summer is near. The disciples should pay attention to the signs of the times – when they see these events taking place, they are to realize the Son of Man is near. Then Jesus said something we find puzzling: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13.30; NRSV). What are we to do with this verse? Many have set forth a variety of interpretations. Some hold that Jesus must have been speaking of Pentecost. Others hold that “generation” is to be understood as “age” or “time.” One can easily become caught up in such debates. I sometimes wonder if this might be what Jesus had in mind when he cautioned that many would be led astray! Isn’t a more important issue at stake?
The heart of the matter is presented in Mark 13.32-37 where Jesus stresses the necessity for watchfulness: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come … or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake” (NRSV).
Last Sunday we considered the parable of the talents. I encouraged you to think of the talents as measures of love. The work the master gives his servants is the work of love. We can long for, hope for, wait, and watch, but what assurance do we have that we will recognize Jesus when he comes? Most did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah at his birth. Even the disciples asked for post-resurrection proof – “Show me, Jesus! Just show me!”
Last Sunday we read Jesus’ words, “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25.40; NRSV) and “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25.45; NRSV). Both the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, expressed surprise that they had or had not responded to Jesus.
Given our knowledge of the parable, we know – we should not be surprised. If we are longing to encounter Jesus, hoping to find Jesus, if we are waiting and watching, then let us realize we will find him in the poor, in the sick, in the stranger, and in the prisoner. When we live in God’s love, we find Jesus in others and in our self. If we are living in God’s love, Jesus is present. As William Barclay said, “The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ” (Anglican Digest, Vol.61, No. 4, p.11).
Keep alert, be on watch, stay awake while longing, hoping, and working for the day the Son of Man comes. Paradoxically, Christ is present, but Christ is coming. As Christians, we live in the Now and the Not Yet!
May we observe a Holy Advent! Amen