November 27, 2011

Therefore Keep Awake

Passage: Mark 13:35-36

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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

The first Sunday in Advent still today marks a seismic shift in attention for Western cultures; notwithstanding the marginalization of Christian faith and increasing multicultural society we all know Christmas is coming.  Somehow a giant light catches our collective attention and though labelled generically with the word “holiday” everyone has their calendar marked with a big circle around December 25th.

Christmas is celebrated as a “season of light.” I did a Google search for the phrase “Christmas lights” and received over 30 million results—in 0.36 of a second I might add.  Imagine all the twinkly Christmas lights across Canada that get strung up, plugged in, and switched on each December ;  imagine all of those little lights together in one place—the light generated would probably be almost blinding.

Obviously the people who put the Common Lectionary together had no Christmas spirit in them;  what were they thinking when they made the very first Advent reading in Year B (Year B follows Mark’s gospel) a text from Mark 13 that begins with talk of all the cosmic lights going out!? “But in those days, after that suffering, 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.”  This is most definitely not “White Christmas” and its sentiment “May your days be merry and bright.”

I submit to you, though, that this Common Lectionary reading points us more profoundly than we know.  The light of the event Jesus speaks about—marked by talk of the cosmic lights going out—is so bright that all our Christmas lights taken together would seem pale by comparison.

1.  When Jesus spoke “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” he is citing apocalyptic imagery from the older testament—the Bible Jesus knew.  These images of cosmic disturbance occur across the spectrum of older testament prophets—Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  These prophets spoke of cosmic disturbances as heralding significant events in God’s dealing with humanity.

Jesus had just shocked the disciples with his comment about the temple’s coming destruction.  They are in Jerusalem for Passover that is just two days away; the Passover when Jesus will be crucified.  After the day in Jerusalem they are finally alone with Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple; the disciple finally ask Jesus what they are anxious to know—“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

We need to be clear that the building is not what has these disciples shaken: it is what the building signifies that has them bewildered.  On the day Solomon dedicated the first temple he prayed: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you. May your eyes be open day and night towards this house, the place where you promised to set your name, and may you heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place.”  Following the dedication prayer “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt-offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”

The temple’s destruction—for these disciples—could only mean that a seismic shift in the universe was to take place.  The lights are going out in the centres of power; changes to the existing world order are occurring.

Jesus talk of cosmic disturbances heralds a significant event in how God would deal with humanity that is shortly to take place.  The centre was shifting from the temple in Jerusalem to the Son of Man...with great power and glory.  The temple on Jerusalem, and the sacrifices that took place there, are no longer the focal point of God’s meeting with his people; the focal point in now the Son.

I shared with you previously of a wonderful book by Sir Colin Humphreys, Professor and Director of Research at the Departments of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge, titled The Mystery of The Last Supper.  In  this book Humphrey’s shows—I think convincingly—how modern scientific methods are able calculate the historic dates on which a lunar eclipse would have been visible from Jerusalem; one of those dates is Friday, April 3, AD 33, the most likely date of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Humphreys is not the first to note that what are known in the Middle East as khamsin dust storms literally darken the sun.  These occur in the spring of the year. When Mark tells these first century followers of Jesus’ words about the sun darkened and the moon not giving light the day of crucifixion comes to mind.

Further when Jesus says “they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory” I believe he has the cosmic shift that occurred at his death and resurrection in mind.  What people “see” is the destruction of the temple that signals Jesus is ascended to the right hand of God and authority has shifted to him—all authority.  The second thing they “see” is the growth of the church as “the angels sent out by God gather the elect from the ends of the earth.”  This is what God is up to in the world today because of the way everything changed with Jesus; he is the hinge of salvation history—yes, of history itself.  The reason I say this is because it makes sense of Jesus’ teaching following his prophetic word: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  The disciples saw the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus before they died.

3. I remind you of something I shared with you a few weeks ago about this decisive historic moment in Jesus Christ.  God made you and me to be glad and grateful covenant-partners with him. Instead he finds us wayward, defiant, disobedient.  Finally, however, there appears one human covenant-partner who renders the Father the glad and grateful obedience the Father is owed.

God is frustrated and saddened over and over as humankind succumbs to temptation as readily as a bear eats garbage. Finally, however, there is given to the world one human being upon whom temptation is concentrated and yet who does not yield.

God is shaken at the way evil scourges his creation, disfiguring people and warping nature. At a point in history chosen inscrutably by him he appoints his Son to be that agent by which the ironfast grip of evil on the entire creation is broken. In his Son God has established a beachhead where evil concentrates its assault yet doesn't triumph, a beachhead from which the conquering one moves inland undoing evil's disfigurements, exposing evil's subtlety, besting evil's persistence. Everything has changed now that someone greater than our cosmic foe has taken the field on our behalf.

It all adds up to something huge: in Jesus Christ a wholly new sphere has been forged for us. In him a new environment has been fashioned. Nothing less than a new world, a new creation, surrounds us. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. Deliverance is now the sphere, the environment in which life unfolds -- or at least in which it may. All we need do is enter the new sphere, enter the new environment, that now surrounds us.

4.  The subject changes in the gospel text at verse 32: Jesus had been talking about things the current generation of disciples would see; events that he gave them enough clues to recognize as they were unfolding, as in 68 AD when the Roman armies first besieged Jerusalem. Now he speaks of “that day or hour no one knows”; the day of his second advent.  Here he tells followers about living in the in-between time; “keep alert ... Therefore, keep awake”, said our Lord.

Clearly, Jesus didn’t mean that a believer is consigned to a life of no sleep.  Large intakes of coffee or other caffeinated substance are not required to be a follower of Jesus.  What he was speaking of was to remain awake to the things that truly matter; never fall asleep with respect to the things that truly matter—and for Jesus that was with respect to the kingdom of God, to live in the new environment that has been fashioned for us by him.

It seems to me that faithfulness is at the heart of what Jesus means by “keep awake”.  Staying the course; finishing the race; pressing on to what is before us—each of these sayings from the Apostles’ writings paint a picture of faithfulness.  Perhaps you find as I do that many things come our way to distract and derail—we do have an enemy of the soul who even seeks to dispirit. Events large and small in our lives come along and test faithfulness.

One thing from which I derive great impetus to persevere in the faith is an ever deepening apprehension of the game-changing universe-altering event of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension to glory of our Lord.  Every other important pursuit seems pale in comparison.

The glory for what we anticipate at his second coming flows out of the wonder of the first.  The universe-altering magnitude of Jesus’ life is the reason for all the fuss over Bethlehem.  Otherwise, any celebration of his birth really would be on a par with fantasies about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the generic “holiday spirit” with which people try to get infused every December. If Jesus is not the Lord of lords who reigns now and is moving history to its culmination then“Silent Night” has all the charm—and all the meaning—of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”

It may be bracing for the church to kick off Advent with an apocalyptic passage like Mark 13 but among other things, such a passage reminds us, and our culture, that the stakes in the Advent of Christ couldn’t be higher.  The Christ of God did not arrive in this world long ago to help people be a little nicer, to encourage a few weeks’ worth of charitable giving to the United Way or the local soup kitchen, or any other such short-term, local goal. No, the Christ of God came to make straight every crooked way, to right every wrong, to upend every injustice, and to reconcile all things—ALL things—to himself.

We read from Isaiah (64:4): 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.

6. A pastor named Doug Goins tells the story of a woman he met when he was in junior high school. She lived about four doors down the street from him in Seattle. Her name was Helen Lemmel. She was in her nineties. She authored many Christian hymns and songs that were popular in the 1920s through the early 1950s. You may know her most famous song:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

Mrs. Lemmel had married into nobility, but she was stricken with blindness as a young woman, and her husband divorced her because he didn't want to be married to a blind woman. Years later, she ended up destitute in Seattle, living in a tiny room in a home where the rent was paid by the county. In her room she had a little plastic organ sitting on a table. It was like a child's chord organ, but she would play it often, crying and singing. She had a vision of going to heaven so she could have a mighty, thundering pipe organ. She didn't see the little plastic organ as bad. She saw it as a foretaste of glory—a down payment on what God was going to do for her—and she counted on that. Pastor Goins said that whenever they came over and asked her how she was doing, she would say, "I am fine in the things that count." Then she would say, "I can hardly wait!"

That's the spirit of Christmas. It's the hardly-can-wait spirit; the spirit that perseveres and persists when the sun shines and through the winter night.  The glorious day of our Lord is coming... therefore, keep awake.