Sermon: Advent 1, 3 December 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 3rd December 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

CHRIST’S RETURN: PUT AWAY THE DIARY!

 (Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7,17-19; 1 Cor. 1:1-9; Mark 13:24-37)

Here we are on what is traditionally called the first day of the new church year: Advent Sunday. Most of our Gospel readings over the past year came from Matthew, but the coming year is the year of Mark. However in many ways, the subject of our Gospel readings is not changing yet. Our last few Gospels have presented parables of Jesus: these parables have warned us that we need to be ready for that day when Jesus shall return in glory, when we ourselves shall see him and be called to give an account of ourselves, and when all Christ’s people shall be gathered to share with him in the ultimate blessings of his kingdom.

So here we are in Mark Chapter 13, a long chapter from which we have heard the last section. But Jesus is not using parables this time. His teaching is more direct, and it brings a series of warnings. But we won’t really get the message of today’s passage unless we have a sense of what leads up to it.

At the beginning of Chapter 13, Jesus is with his disciples, looking at the magnificent temple of Jerusalem. This time their interest is not in Jesus’ condemnation of the trading and extortion that is going on inside. They are, after all, like tourists from the provinces, and this is one of the great buildings of its time.

“Lord,” they say, “what large stones and what large buildings!” They are rightly impressed. In Jerusalem all you can see nowadays is some of the foundations of Herod’s temple, and the stone blocks are indeed massive. It is hard to imagine how they were set in place, but the Romans knew how to do these things!

Jesus’ response to the admiring comments of the disciples does not suggest that he shared their enthusiasm. “You see these great buildings? They will all be thrown down: not one stone will be left upon another.” Yes, he was saying, this great temple will be destroyed. It will be left as just a heap of ruins.

For this to happen, surely Jerusalem itself must also be destroyed! What an awful thing to contemplate! The disciples are taken aback. It sounds terrible! When is this going to happen? And if it is going to happen, how will we know when we need to escape? What will be the signs to warn us?

And so Jesus takes the disciples through a series of signs. He speaks of false teachers and fake Messiahs; of wars and violence; of natural disasters: earthquakes and famines. He warns his followers that they will face persecution, and that even families will be divided for and against Jesus. He also assures them that his Gospel will, despite all this, be taken to all nations.

Most of this is pretty worrying. Yes, the message of Christ will spread, but following Jesus will not be easy or popular: indeed it could well be dangerous. But most of what he describes is very familiar to us: wars and natural disaster are the stuff of history, and religious division and persecution are as real today as they were 2000 years ago.

But then Jesus brings out another element. He talks about the temple being desecrated, and clearly warns of terrible suffering for the people of Jerusalem. The day is coming when it will be vital to escape the city as fast as you can, for the suffering will be terrible indeed. And indeed that suffering and destruction of Jerusalem happened in 70AD, within a generation of Jesus’ ministry. By then the Romans had had enough of Jewish resistance against their rule: many Jews escaped because they saw the signs, but large numbers were massacred – and the temple was indeed desecrated and destroyed.

Jesus is warning his followers ahead of time. “Be alert!” he tells the disciples. “Terrible things will happen. Be prepared.” And so we come to the section of the chapter that we read this morning. It certainly was a dramatic way to jump into the Gospel of Mark! “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Now the prophets sometimes used language like this to describe God’s judgement against evil nations, or even against Israel. God’s judgement will be so overwhelming that it will seem that the whole world has been turned upside down.

But this time there seems to be something more happening. For people will see “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” with great power and glory, and gathering his people together from wherever they may be. Once again Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, but this time it is the Book of Daniel, which tells of God’s ultimate victory over the nations who seek to stand up against him and his rule. In Chapter 7, one like a Son of Man comes to the eternal Lord and is given eternal authority over all people. The prophet is told that this authority will in fact be shared by God’s holy people.

So when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels, he is saying that he is the one referred to in that prophecy, and that one day all people will see him as the true Lord of all, and his own people will share with him in his glorious kingdom.

But back to the original question. When is this all going to happen? Jesus points to the fig tree: watch its leaves developing and you will know that summer is getting close. Jesus reminds the disciples of the signs he has already mentioned, climaxing in the destruction of the temple. These events are signs that the time is near. But they don’t give the exact timing. As Jesus emphasized, neither the angels, nor Jesus himself knew the actual day. We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? Paul was saying that to the Thessalonians in last week’s reading, and we’ve heard it at other times.

Trying to predict the date of Jesus’ return is a futile exercise, and in fact it is really an act of disobedience. It is not for us to try to predict the date, or to devise detailed schemes describing what we think is going to happen. We are not told the date, because Jesus wants us to live as those who are always ready.

But we are told that it will be soon. But soon means different things in different circumstances. The timescale involved in telling you that this sermon will end soon is quite different from that involved in saying that Christmas is coming soon. That’s probably something of a relief.

It’s different again from the timescale envisaged by the climate experts who are telling us that some Pacific Islands will soon be uninhabitable because of climate change. These people are saying that it is likely to come within a generation or two, and something needs to be done now, not just in a few decades!

In God’s timetable, the return of Jesus is just around the corner: it is the next major event in his diary. But we don’t know how long the corner is, and we have to remember that God’s outlook on time is different from ours, for with him “one day is as a thousand years”. Again the point is that we need to live as people who are always ready, for it could happen at any time.

A worker who is given the job of being on watch overnight must be always awake and alert. That is his job; that is his responsibility. And our responsibility as Jesus’ followers is to live as people who are always ready for that overwhelming and terrible and wonderful day. Jesus longs not only to tell us that we are forgiven and to welcome us into his kingdom: he wants to be able to say to us on that day “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Living in readiness means that we maintain our faith in Jesus who died for us, and who brings us forgiveness and life. Living in readiness means also that we seek to live day by day as Jesus’ followers: serving him, loving one another and loving our neighbour.

As we live by faith, and as we seek to live faithful lives, we will indeed be ready for that day – whether it comes during our earthly life, or whether Jesus comes some time after we have died. We will be part of it. Let us then live each day as those who will be known as Jesus’ friends, Jesus’ people, Jesus’ servants, on that great day. Amen.

Paul Weaver