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Still Waiting
a sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:24-37
by Richard Gehring

            Here we are, the last day of the month of November.  Thanksgiving is now past, although some of us still may have family to gather with and more turkey to eat.  Our church calendar, however, tells us that this is the beginning of the season known as Advent.  It is a season that has been observed by the church, in one form or another, for more than 1600 years.  The earliest record we have of the celebration of Advent comes from Spain around the year 380 when a law was passed prohibiting anyone from being absent from church between December 17 and January 6, the day of Epiphany.  Eventually, the season was extended to include the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day, December 25.

            But while we may know when Advent is, we aren't always sure exactly what it is all about.  I looked up the word "advent" in the dictionary and found this definition:  "The coming or arrival, especially of something awaited or momentous."  That definition immediately raises a number of questions for me.  What is it that arrives during this Advent season?  What is coming?  What momentous event do we await?

            The simple answer to this question is that Advent is the time of waiting for Christmas.  But this is not an answer that I find completely satisfactory.  Why do we need to spend four weeks waiting for one day?  On the other hand, why start waiting now when Christmas decorations have been up in stores and carols have been playing at the mall for a whole month now?

            Our two scripture texts for this morning are both addressed to people who, unlike us, were accustomed to waiting.  The Isaiah passage most likely was written during or immediately after the time of the Babylonian exile.  The people of Israel had been utterly defeated, their leaders taken away as captives to a foreign land, their cities destroyed and their temple ransacked and burned.  And even after their oppressors were defeated and the nobility were allowed to return home, they were still not an independent nation, and it was some time before the temple was rebuilt. 

            So the people waited.  They waited for the restoration of their once proud glory as a sovereign kingdom.  They waited for the rebuilding of their once beautiful house of worship.  They waited for the renewal of their once refined society that had been decimated by the exile.  And through it all, they waited for God to act.  They waited for an answer to how God could let such a horrendous thing happen to the chosen people.

            Six centuries later, in Jesus' time, the people were also waiting.  By then, the temple had been restored and was indeed as glorious, if not more glorious, than the temple Solomon himself had built.  The Jewish people were allowed to live in their own land and had at least a certain amount of autonomy over their own affairs.  But they still were not a free and independent people.  Their land was still occupied by foreign forces, now the Romans.

            By the time Mark recorded Jesus' words, some 30 or 40 years after they were spoken, the situation had reached a point of crisis.  A Jewish revolt against the Romans failed.  The Roman army responded by clamping down harshly on Judea.  And in the year AD 70 the magnificent temple that had been completely restored during Jesus' lifetime was once again destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

            And so the people of first century Palestine waited.  They waited for the day when they would be free of oppressive Roman rule.  They waited for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God promised by the prophets of old.  They waited for the Son of David to again sit on the throne in Jerusalem and rule over his people in justice and righteousness.  They, too, waited for God to act.  And they, too, waited for an answer to the question of why God seemed to be neglecting the chosen people.

It is in the context of this waiting that the prophecies of Isaiah and of Jesus that we have heard this morning were spoken.  The prophecy of Isaiah opens with a cry for help.  On behalf of God's people, the prophet impatiently calls on God to do something, to act in the powerful and awesome ways that God had acted in the past:

            "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

               so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

            as when fire kindles brushwood

               and the fire causes water to boil--

             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."

Then, in the midst of this desperate cry, the prophet comes to a deeper understanding of why God has not acted.  He recalls that, in spite of God's great acts of the past, the people continued to sin.  So he is moved to confession:

            "We have all become like one who is unclean,

               and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

             We all fade like a leaf,

               and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

             There is no one who calls on your name,

               or attempts to take hold of you;

             for you have hidden your face from us,

               and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity."

But in spite of the despair of the prophet, he is still able to end on a note of hope.  In spite of the terrible conditions of the exile, he is still hopeful that, eventually, the waiting of the people will be rewarded.  God will act.  The people of God will be saved.  And so Isaiah concludes by reminding God,

            "Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;

               we are the clay, and you are our potter;

               we are all the work of your hand.

             Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,

               and do not remember iniquity forever.

               Now consider, we are all your people."

            Jesus builds on this theme of hoping and expecting that God will act–that the heavens will indeed be torn open.  In our text from Mark this morning, he promises his followers that God will indeed intervene at some point to rescue God's people from tyranny and oppression.  Some day, perhaps a day very soon, God will bring about an end to history as we know it and there will no longer be the suffering and the turmoil with which the chosen ones have become so familiar.

            In making his pronouncement, Jesus uses some very vivid imagery—the sky darkening, the fig tree blossoming and the homeowner returning from a long journey.  These images are so vivid, in fact, that many have become almost obsessed with trying to figure out exactly what they mean.  For example, much ink has been spilled and many heated debates have broken out over just what the darkening of the sun and the stars falling from the sky are really supposed to represent.

            But it seems to me that we can get too caught up in the details of the images and lose the general sense of Jesus' message.  His point, I think is summed up in several brief statements that are found toward the end of this passage:  "Be on guard!  Be alert!"(v. 33)  and "Keep watch"(v. 35).  Jesus' point is that God will indeed act, and that God's people must keep their eyes open to see how God is breaking into history.  Those who are waiting must do so with a note of anticipation and expectation, knowing that one day their waiting will be rewarded.  We are thus to wait in eagerness and with great attention, not in resignation or apathy.

            Still, though, we find ourselves returning to the question I posed earlier.  In this Advent season, what are we waiting for?   After all, the people of Israel returned to their land and restored their nation thousands of years ago and again within the past century.  We are now into the third millennium since the Messiah has come and gone.  So what do the words of Isaiah and Jesus have to say to us today?

            There are, I think at least two very important things that these words do for us.  First of all, these prophecies serve as a reminder that we are indeed still waiting.  We may not be waiting for the overthrow of foreign oppressors or for the Son of David to sit on the throne again.  But we are still waiting for the final victory.  The prophecies of Isaiah and Jesus have been fulfilled to some extent, but their final fulfillment is yet to come.  The Kingdom of God has not yet been established in all its fullness.  The Prince of Peace does not yet reign on earth as in heaven.  And that is what we are waiting for.

            As we go about our preparations for Christmas this year, we are waiting for many things.  We wait in line to make our purchases.  We wait to open presents.  We wait to see our family members from distant places.  But in this time of Advent, we are reminded that we are waiting for something much, much bigger than all that.  Even as we prepare to celebrate the fact that the Messiah did come 2000 years ago, we recall that we also wait now for his return when the mission that he began will be completed.  We remember that we, too, are waiting for God to act.  And we, too, may be moved to ask why God appears to be so delayed in responding to the sufferings and crises around us today.

            In addition, then, to reminding us of what we are waiting for, our scriptures this morning are also helpful in telling us how it is that we should be waiting.  Both texts stand as a reminder that we are not alone in waiting.  Throughout history, God's people have waited for God to act.  Humans have often become impatient with what we perceive to be the slowness with which God acts.  God’s actions often take far longer than we would like.  But in every previous case, God has never failed to act.

            The children of Israel spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt before Moses led them out.  Then it was another 40 years before they entered the promised land.  The Babylonian exile lasted 50 years.  It was another 15 or 20 years before the reconstruction of the temple began, and nearly 400 years before there was again an independent nation of Israel.  And the prophets began promising a Messiah more than 700 years before Jesus was born.

            So, even though it has already been over 2000 years since Jesus came, we should not despair that he has not yet returned.  Like Isaiah and Jesus, we are to remain hopeful that God will yet act.  We must continue to trust that the work begun in Christ will ultimately be fulfilled.  We need to recognize that we are still in a time of Advent–not just in December, but all year long.

I           saiah also provides us with an example of how we can approach the Advent wait fruitfully rather than simply biding our time until the inevitable happens.  The prophet recognized that at least a part of the reason for God's reluctance to act stemmed from the unfaithfulness of the people.  God was not yet acting to save God's people because those people had turned away from God.  It thus seems only logical to conclude that at least a part of the reason that God has not yet acted in our day to completely fulfill the promises of the prophets is that we have not been as faithful as we should be in following God's call.

            Isaiah’s realization of this led him to confess the sinfulness of his people.  We must be ready to do likewise.  We need to admit our own shortcomings.  We ought to be willing to recognize the many ways in which we have not lived up to God's expectations, the ways in which we have failed to do what we could do to assist in bringing about God's Kingdom on earth, the ways in which we may, in fact, actively hinder that Kingdom from being established in all its glory.  We must confess these to God; and we must be willing to correct our ways so that God can bring an end to our waiting.  Our actions will never bring about the Kingdom in and of themselves–only God can do that.  But we can work to make God’s Kingdom more visible in the world now, and at least get out of the way of God acting to establish the Kingdom in all its fullness.

            Ultimately, though, Jesus reminds us that we wait in hope.  The day of the coming of the Son of Man which he describes is a terrible and yet glorious day.  It is a day for which we are to wait hopefully and expectantly rather than fearfully.  For it is in that day that the mission which Christ began at his first advent will be brought to completion–the day when the heavens will be torn open and the dividing wall between Creator and creation will be forever dismantled.

            Yes, we are still waiting.  But it seems that many of us today have forgotten what we are waiting for.  After all, there are no hourly reports on CNN to remind us.  There are no throngs of lawyers filing suits and counter-suits to force the outcome they desire.  There are no government officials preparing for the transition from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of God.  There are only the words of prophets spoken centuries ago, the testimony of the One who told us to keep watch, and the baby in the manger who reminds us how surprised everyone was the last time it happened.

            This Advent season as we wait to celebrate once again the marvelous coming of God to earth in human form, let us recall that we are still waiting for God to come again.  Let us remember God's glorious acts of the past.  Let us seek to further the Kingdom of God in the present.  And let us expectantly wait for the wonderful salvation that is yet to come in the future when God will indeed tear open the heavens and come down once again.