a sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-9
& Mark 13:24-37
by Richard Gehring
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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:
you would tear open the heavens and come down,
the mountains would quake at your presence--
fire kindles brushwood
fire causes water to boil--
your name known to your adversaries,
the nations might tremble at your presence!
did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
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:
all become like one who is unclean,
our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
fade like a leaf,
iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
no one who calls on your name,
attempts to take hold of you;
have hidden your face from us,
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
LORD, you are our Father;
the clay, and you are our potter;
all the work of your hand.
Do not be
exceedingly angry, O LORD,
not remember iniquity forever.
consider, we are all your people."
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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