1st Sunday of Advent Mark 13 24 -4 end
‘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.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 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.
‘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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. 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. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Waiting is often the hardest thing to do because it feels like you’re not doing anything, and it seems twice as hard when you’re young. Remember when we were children, Christmas always seems aeons away and we thought the end of school or our birthday would never arrive.
We 21st-century folks certainly have an ever-shrinking attention span; our wealth and technology allow us to access virtually anything we want any time we want. Everything is faster, we want it now, and it seems most of us love that speed, especially technological speed (even if we would like to deny it) Waiting ten seconds to let a webpage load? We are urged to get a faster connection. Waiting to let yourself cool down before sending that email or posting that social media rant? Unlikely, as we live in a go, go, go atmosphere. The motto in the city was sadly ‘You snooze, you lose.’ If anyone needs to learn the Advent virtue of waiting upon the Lord, it’s us in the 21st century.
Virtually the only things we haven’t been able to speed up or shorten are our basic biological processes. It still takes nine long months to have a baby, whether we want to wait that long or not. And so, if we want to be with Mary in her journey toward giving birth to Jesus, we need to settle into the long haul. We’ve already been busy with other things for the first eight months, and now in her last month of pregnancy, we need to slow down and take these four weeks of Advent to watch and wait.
We should of course be experts in waiting as virtually this entire year has been a time of waiting. We’ve waited during lockdowns and quarantines. We’ve waited for PPE, for masks, for ventilators and for toilet paper. We’ve waited for test results for the coronavirus, wondering whether we are positive or not. We’ve waited endless weeks and months, not able to visit our friends and relatives in hospitals and nursing homes.
We have waited for children to go back to school and to see if our jobs would hold out during the crisis. We have waited with our friends across the pond to see who would be the next President of the United States of America. We have waited for a vaccine, and now we wait to see when we can have the jab. We have waited to see what Tier we are going to be in. We are here this morning on ZOOM or reading this on line as we are waiting to be able to go back to church in the way that was familiar and comfortable. (However that might not be the best thing to be waiting for as it is never good to retreat, we must always be ready to advance – but that is a sermon for another day!)
2020 has been a year of waiting. Patience is a hard-earned virtue, and many of us are wearied by all the waiting we’ve had to do, all the times we’ve had to say no to ourselves, our children our family, and our friends this year, in order to stay safe and keep others safe. It might feel like 2020 consisted of nothing but life on hold.
But is that true? Has this time of waiting really been wasted? Mary’s time of waiting was almost as long as ours has been. What has been blossoming and growing in your heart during this time of waiting? What new thing is ready to be born in our Benefice after having been forced to slow down and really ask, what is the most important thing about church? How have you and your family found new strengths to adapt to the sudden expanse of free and enforced time together?
Mary’s time of waiting had a purpose. It had a goal and an end, and she faithfully pursued it with God’s help. As we reflect on our waiting this year, we ask the question, what has God grown in me. What will be the gift I will offer the world this Christmas just as Mary did?
Life is a complicated affair; we can almost guarantee that at some point our world will feel like it will fall apart; life suddenly changes, it feels as if the lights have gone out. More often than not we see this as the end. Jesus says, ‘When these things happen, remember the fig tree. Read the signs correctly. When its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves you know summer is near. So also when the darkness overtakes your life know that the Son of Man is near.’ Christ’s presence, our healing and salvation are always taking place in the dark and messy parts of life. We have not and never will be abandoned to the darkness.
The good news is of course that God has not been absent; He has been with us in our waiting, in the time we have had to read the scriptures, to pray and to reflect. Perhaps we are better equipped now than we have ever been to understand the often repeated Biblical mandate to ‘wait upon the Lord.’
And so we begin this Advent keeping watch and waiting with Mary, waiting for the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas Day, that glorious moment of incarnation when God comes to be with us in human form. That’s a fixed endpoint that we know ahead of time. Come December 25th, we will be celebrating Jesus’ arrival.
But as the reading from Mark’s Gospel told us, we are also doing another kind of waiting. This waiting is not passive but is to be vigilant. We need to be alert, to be awake as Jesus urges his followers to prepare for an uncertain future – the only thing that is really certain is that one day the world will come to an end. We do not know when – that is the uncertainty we have to live with, but we do know that it will happen. Jesus says, be ready to meet God at any moment. We don’t like to think or talk about the end of the world and it may or not be in our lifetime. We know the other certainties in life, birth, death and taxes. It is an interesting reflection on our society that the one thing about all our lives that is certain is the one thing we talk about the least and the thing that most people are afraid of – our death. Jesus came to take the fear of death away but we still need to be ready to meet with God at any moment in time.
The Jews prayed seven times a day for the Messiah to come to them, but when he came as their saviour they didn’t recognise him. They wanted a powerful leader; instead he came as a helpless baby – ordinary just like us. That is why we are able to connect with him. In Jesus, God meets us where we are, as we are, and we find him in the beauty of a sunset, in the power of wind and rain. He is in the laughter of our children and the healing touch of the nurse. We need to seek and recognise him in the many different ways he appears to us and as we meet him day by day, so we will be prepared to meet him at the end.
And so, we pray, as we wait together, and we love one another, that we will be those who Isaiah, the great prophet of the Advent season exhorts - “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.