Sermon
November 28 , 1999
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

Mark 13:24-37

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)

Isaiah 64:1-9

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)

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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

themselves."

"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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