|November 28 , 1999|
|Rev. Virnette Hamilton|
|First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT 06776|
|Write to Rev. Hamilton|
24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from
heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see
'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will
send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends
of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes
tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also,
when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very
gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all
these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my
words will not pass away.
32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in
heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do
not know when the time will come. 34 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 the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake -- for
you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at
midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when
he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." (NRSV)
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains
would quake at your presence -- 2 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! 3 When you did awesome
deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your
presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye
has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You
meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you
were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 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. 7 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. 8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the
clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be
exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now
consider, we are all your people. (NRSV)
Sermon - A Sign From on High
This is the first Sunday in Advent for the year 1999. The beginning of the
new church year and only days away from the hour that we move from the 1900's
into the 2000's. This Christmas we will celebrate Christ's 1999 birthday.
During this new year we will focus on the Gospel according to Mark. (Last
year the majority of our Gospel readings were from Matthew.) Our first
Gospel reading of the new year is the Little Apocalypse. Mark's version of
Jesus predictions about the Second Coming.
This might seem like a strange passage to read the first Sunday of Advent,
and maybe it seems like a strange passage to even have in the Gospels. As we
heard Sherry Baine read, "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.
The passages just proceeding this one are just as ominous. They use phrases
like "desolating sacrilege," "woe to those" and include the prediction of
false messiahs and prophets and signs and omens.
When you read this passage you have to remember to put it into context.
Mark's gospel was written after the death and resurrection of Christ in the
late 60's ad. It was after the destruction of the temple and probably during
Nero's persecution of the Christians. Civil and domestic violence was
shaking their world, and the Christians were desperately feeling the absence
of Jesus, the one who gave them hope. False prophets and messiahs were all
too available, each claiming to have the answers.
If you look at the footnotes in an annotated Bible, you would see that many
of these passages are lifted from the books of the First Testament, Daniel,
Joel, Ezekiel, Amos, Isaiah, all written during similar times in Israel's
history. As a matter of fact, our passage from Isaiah this morning was
thought to have been written during the time when the people of Israel were
in exile. They had been scattered, their leaders killed, their brightest
taken into custody to be of service to the enemy, the Babylonians. The
people didn't know how to read what they perceived to be God's absence. They
begged God to "come down" as before and shake the mountain: "remember us, we
are the clay, you are the potter" - we need you to shape us.
Of course there are those, who believe that we are now seeing all of these
signs, earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, stars falling form the sky, the meteor
shower last week, - and that these signs are the signal that the end will
come at midnight on the 31 of December. Some of these folks have a religious
focus, others just worry about Y2K. All of you who watched the TV movie
about Y2K that aired last Sunday night saw the predictions, the fears, and
the possibilities. I personally can imagine that the complexity of the Y2K
glitch could produce some problems and frustrations, but I trust that life
will continue. As for the Second Coming? I have never known God to be
either transparent or predictable. Hard to believe that this mere, off by a
year, Millennium celebration would be the one instance that would provoke the
Second Coming of the Messiah.
So I want to offer some reassurance. This passage is not being read
specifically to warn us that the end is quite near, but it is still
appropriate and meaningful for our celebration of Advent.
Advent is not merely a celebration of Christ's first coming, the nativity; it
is about our living between that time and the Second Coming. We say "Christ
has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." We are living in that
in-between time, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
Without knowing it, the first Christians were waiting, just as we are. They
believed that the Second Coming would be soon, that Christ would come again,
in their lifetime. As time went by their determination to live with their
eye on the goal diminished. Their dedication to watchfulness and following
Jesus' teachings in the midst of strife was slowly dissolving.
Without knowing it, we are in the same place, but the effects of the waiting
are even more dramatic.
For us waiting has become less than an action word. It means biding our
time, sort of like suspended animation. Waiting is what goes on when nothing
else happens. This is not the waiting that Jesus preached.
Jesus wants action - the parable of the man who leaves on a journey and puts
his slave in charge and demands that they continue their work and watchful,
lest he return and find them unprepared.
A little like a teacher leaving the classroom for a minute and putting the
class on their best behavior.
Or like what happened when my girls were really young. I left them with a
sitter, so that I could go shopping. At the end of our street I realized
that I had forgotten the checkbook so I turned around and went back to get
it. When I walked in the back door, unexpectedly, I discovered my youngest
daughter, standing on the stove, with the cupboard door above the stove open.
There she was with her hand firmly planted in the bag of marshmallows. With
a surprised look on her face she said, very casually, "Oh, hi Mom"
Jesus has been quite clear with us on what we are to be doing while we wait -
in Mark 12: 28, Jesus reminds us of the 2 most important commandments - "love
God and love your neighbor" and that keeping those commandments is more
important than anything else we can do, for we are not far from the kingdom
of Heaven. The kingdom of heaven is among us right now. And then Jesus goes
on the remind us that we rarely get it, we keep trying to make the package
work to our advantage. Instead of living with faith, trusting that God is
with us, putting our love for God and our neighbor first, we look for ways to
insure our own future first.
Jesus knew us all too well. We get confused and we forget our task. Our
resolve to follow those commandments has weakened over time. Those two most
important commandments tend to come after; "god helps those who help
"What is Christianity's greatest accomplishment in our century?" asks Peter
Gomes, preacher to Harvard University. "It survived."
You know Y2K -an unplanned computer glitch - might be a wonderful model for
what we can accomplish, as a global community, working together. All over
the world, men and women have been working in total cooperation with each
other on bringing computers up to date so that we can avoid the potential
disaster that could have occurred if we were not properly prepared.
Differences - both religious and political - have been put aside to
accomplish a common goal.
Surely, as a church we can do better than to just survive. We too should be
able to put all differences aside to accomplish a common goal. We can learn,
we can change, we can offer a model that puts aside politics and religion and
skin color and fear, that levels the playing field and includes all people.
We can help to lift oppression, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and
educate all children. Surely, if the kingdom is near, we can find a way to
accomplish this common goal of loving God and one another.
What will we do as a church to prepare? - What will you do as a family? An
individual? The opportunities in our church, our community and our world are
obvious and endless. Stay alert. Be dedicated to the task.
History isn't something that happens without our input. History is a drama
that we ourselves can help to shape - we are responsible to God, to one
another and to God's creation.
Keep awake - stay alert - the kingdom of God is here and it has been left in
our hands. Let us keep busy by proclaiming justice, kindness, and mercy for
all people. Amen
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