Paul told his young assistant Timothy that God’s Spirit does not make us timid. Instead, it emboldens us to live a life of love and self-discipline. Paul wrote this from prison awaiting execution. Clearly, there is a peace about living in God’s will, even when the way is unclear or involves suffering.
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In the Christmas story, we find many people who discovered peace in the midst of suffering and confusing situations because they placed their faith in God. They believed he had a plan and trusted him to guide them through the darkness into light. Mary had an unplanned pregnancy. Joseph was confused how his girl could cheat on him and what to do about it. The magi thought they knew where God was taking them, yet they ended up in the wrong city! They almost became political pawns in the process. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus found themselves on the run from authorities. Eventually, they became political refugees living as immigrants in Egypt, wondering when they could return home. They had to live in a culture not their own, learn a new language that was foreign to them. Many they encountered day after day probably hated them because of their foreignness!
This was just in the first few years of Jesus’ life! No wonder the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus was made like us. He was human in every way. He understands our needs because he has suffered as we have. Jesus came into our Egypt, our captivity, our exile. He did not break sins’ shackles from the comfort of heaven. He was “born into shit and straw” (to quote the ever-colorful Bono from U2). This helpless babe had to trust not only his heavenly Father, but also his parents to protect him and love him. Jesus suffered as we suffer. He was tempted as we are tempted. Through it all, he trusted his Father’s plan and walked in accordance with the Spirit of God. This is what made him the Prince of Peace. This is how he was able to save us from our sins.
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Advent is the time before Christmas when Christians prepare themselves for the coming of Christmas, the coming of Christ. The first week of the advent season focuses on hope. Traditionally, this first week focuses on the second coming of Christ. Christians today wait for the coming of Christ just as Jews in the years before Jesus (and many still today) waited for the coming of the Messiah.
Watch and be ready certainly described how my sisters and I approached the coming of Christmas. Each year we sought to stay awake until Christmas. We kept our eyes open for the coming of Santa. We watched and looked for the signs. One sign that we “saw” each Christmas Eve was the red light of Rudolph’s nose guiding Santa’s sleigh. I would point this light out to my youngest sister through the window where we waited, knowing full well that every other night that same red light was a radio tower! But Christmas was different. We watched for the signs. We waited for Santa. We sought to be ready at all times. Those are the ideas we find in Mark 13:24-37.
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There is an emphasis in the text to observe the signs. Verses 24-25 contain the most dramatic of the signs–the sun darkening, the moon not giving light, the stars shaken and falling from the sky. While some take these images literally, others view them as symbolic expressions shared by the Old Testament prophets for the dramatic turn of events that will occur in the Day of YHWH. When we hear on the news or read online that an election was a “tidal wave of change” or that a new poll reveals a “seismic shift” of opinion or that someone’s death has “rocked the world,” we do not think there were literally tsunamis or earthquakes. Perhaps the same was true for the ancients. The imagery was indicative of great change that would occur. Peter (2:28-29; cf. Acts 2:16) and Paul (2:32; cf. Rom 10:13) both quote from Joel and say that his words have come true in Jesus, yet these fulfilled prophecies are tied to statements about the sun going dark and the moon turning to blood (2:30-31).
Verse 28 says you know it is almost summer when the fig tree leafs out. We wouldn’t know that in West Texas but in Israel, where almost all trees are evergreens, the fig tree becomes a default seasonal marker. Jesus said it was bad to see signs for seasons and weather, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-3). So Christians should be interested in knowing the times, but we should not be preoccupied with interpretation of the signs themselves or plotting precise dates for the return of Christ.
One reason we should be careful is that the signs mentioned in the passage (and the rest of Mark 13) are different foci. Some are clearly about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. (For instance, Jesus’ reference to “this generation” in verse 30 and that it is “near” and “at the door” seem to point to the temple destruction by the Romans.) Some may be about the very end of the age (perhaps the stars falling or the angels gathering the elect in verse 27). Several could be one or the other. It is sort of like the dinging sound your car makes. Sometimes it is easy to identify the reason for the warning–say, your seatbelt is not fastened or you have left the lights on and opened the car door. Other times, however, it is easy to see the sign but difficult to interpret its meaning. The most notorious is the “check engine” light. That could mean anything! A clear reason to not rely too heavily on precise dating is that Jesus says not even he as the earthly Messiah knew when the end would be (v. 32).
In Matthew 2, the wise men were able to read the signs (the star), so they knew the essential issue (Messiah was born) but they didn’t understand where they should go (they ended up in Jerusalem. The priests and scribes, however, knew the ins and outs of the prophets (they quickly told Herod the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem) but they couldn’t see the signs. Not a single one of them is said to have traveled the 6 miles to Bethlehem to see if the magi were correct. The magi might have missed by 6 miles, but they were nearer the Kingdom of God despite their (probably) Gentile status.
A second thing we must do is keep our eyes on the Son. While we may not fully understand the signs, we can recognize the direction they point . . . and they always point toward the Son. Verse 34 emphasizes the need to keep watch for the master’s return. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to keep our eyes on the Jesus, because he is the “pioneer” of our faith, as he has walked the path before us, and he is the “perfecter” of our faith, as the one who lived and died in a way that was pleasing to his Father. Hebrews tells us that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus doesn’t mention sitting at the right hand in this passage, but he does tell his followers that some will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory (an allusion to Dan 7:13-14). This could be his resurrection and exaltation. It could an allusion to the fulfillment of his prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction. It could be a reference to his return. But what is clear is that our eyes should be on him. Similarly, the Son of Man is said to send his angels to gather his elect. Is this a reference to the end of time where his angels harvest the resurrected and living? Or (since the Greek word translated “angels” in other places means “messengers”), is this an allusion to the Great Commission of Jesus’ disciples going to all the nations to create a new community, the true Israel?
What is clear is that we need to keep our eyes at all times on Jesus and trues him to sort those things out. Mary does this when the shepherds come to see the infant. We are told that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). She reflected on who Jesus was and kept her eyes and her thoughts on him. If we have our eyes on Jesus, according to the author of Hebrews, we will notice that, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and [so] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). One thing we see as we look at the one who walked the path before us and perfected that path is that he was humble. Our eyes should be on Jesus and not on politics. Our actions and words should be on humility, healing, and hope (except on occasion to the powerful elites–including the religious leaders!) rather than pushing our power and our views on others.
Not only should our eyes be on the Son, but our ears should be on his words. Jesus makes an outlandish claim about his words in verse 31! “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” To a Jew, such a statement is blasphemous. Genesis 1 tells us that heaven and earth came to be because of the words of God. God spoke creation into existence. But Jesus says his words will outlast God’s! This is blasphemous if Jesus is a mere mortal. If he is divine as well as human, however, then he can make such a claim. In John’s gospel, when many are abandoning Jesus, Jesus asks the twelve if they will also abandon him. Simon Peter said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). We must always keep our eyes on Jesus and our ears on his words.
Finally, we must watch and be ready. In the mini-parable found in verse 34, Jesus tells us that when the master departed for his trip, he gave each of his servants an assigned task. Are you doing your assigned task? We are told to be alert and on guard, that is, we are to be ready at any moment for the return of Christ. Every community should have a fire station. They are wonderful to have near you (you get a discount on your homeowner’s insurance). Firefighters put out fires. They help respond to medical emergencies. Everyone in the community understands that part of their job is to wash their trucks, attend fire safety courses, and other non-firefighting tasks. No one begrudges them eating meals together on their long shifts or fellowshipping with one another during down time. But the community would rise up in protest if they found out the firefighters were ignoring fire alarms because they just put a meal in the oven. The community would not forgive them for delaying a response to a multiple car collision because they needed to finish washing the trucks. But too often, Christians focus on fellowship, Bible studies, and upkeep and improvement of their church property rather than the truly important lifesaving and life-giving activities in their communities and among their family.
We need to be alert and on call at all times. Zechariah was on duty (Lk 1). He was in the temple offering incense to YHWH. He was not prepared, however, for the appearance of an angel beside the incense table. Nor was he ready for the startling news that Elizabeth would conceive and bear them a son in their old age. Because of t his, Zechariah was not allowed to speak until John’s birth. The shepherds, however, were attentive and on guard the night of Jesus birth (Lk 2). They were watching their flocks in the middle of the night. While they were not prepared for the angel’s appearance, they responded immediately in believe and wonder at the news of Messiah’s birth and ran to find the baby Jesus. They understood the true priorities and temporarily left the sheep to find the Good Shepherd and shared the news with others as they returned.
Not only are we warned to be on guard and to be ready for the master’s return. We are warned against him finding us asleep when he returns (v. 36). This reminds me of the Everly Brothers’ hit, “Wake Up, Little Susie.” While the melody is upbeat, the song recounts the horror and dread of a young couple who went to a Drive-In Theater and fell asleep watching a boring movie. They wake up several hours past their curfew and the song talks about what Susie’s parents will think as well as what rumors their friends might spread. The couple are never said to have done anything untoward, but falling asleep placed them in a compromising position! The Church needs to be careful not to fall asleep by focusing on the wrong things or just being lazy. This will give not only the Church and its members a bad reputation in the community. It will speak ill of Christ himself. Instead, we need to be busy with the tasks we have been assigned.
John tells us, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). So this Advent, as we live in hope for the return of Christ and anticipate the coming of the Christmas season, we need to observe the signs, we need to keep our eyes on the Son, and we need to watch and be ready.
I haven’t posted sermons in a while. This is going back to Advent season. The birth of Jesus is like joy blossoming in the desert. In the darkness of our sin and struggles, the light came to bring hope and joy. Isaiah gives voice to this joyful coming as he describes the emergence of a garden in the desert (a return from exile to Eden?). When we find ourselves in the desert, we can discover joy as we trust in God and walk in his ways, knowing he can transform the desert into a garden–though not always in ways we would expect.
Advent is from the Latin word that means “coming.” It is a time when Christians through their imagination enter into the time of watching and waiting for the coming of the Messiah, as the ancient Jews also did. Advent is also a time when we recall to mind the watching and waiting we do for the return of Jesus. We anticipate the time when he will return to bring to fulfillment the Lord’s Prayer, bringing God’s kingdom in all its fullness, when God’s will shall be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Come, Lord Jesus!
Advent means “coming,” as in the coming of Jesus. It is a time of waiting and anticipation. Do you realize how hard it is to slow down and wait in our culture? We’re a Netflix generation. On Friday, Boom! A whole season of some show drops. Don’t lie to me—you binge watch the season in a weekend, don’t you? You probably get impatient waiting 1 minute 30 seconds for a bag of popcorn that used to take 10 or more minutes to make. We don’t really know how to wait, much less be alone. Waiting for a friend? Hop on Instagram or Snapchat someone else. I’m not picking on you because you’re young. It’s everyone in our culture. I mean, my parents live in Southeast Texas. They know it takes me around 10-11 hours to drive one way to visit them. Yet my mother calls at least 3 times to find out where we are! . . . And she always sounds disappointed when she hears our progress! (Only in Abilene? I hoped you were closer to home by now!) What did people do before cell phones when loved ones traveled? Wait! Anticipate! Hope! Pray!
Those words also describe Advent. It is the time before Christmas where the Church has traditionally paused to remember the coming of Jesus. It is a time of reflection; a time to imagine ourselves waiting with the Jews for the birth of the long awaited Messiah. It is also a time to think about our own waiting, to anticipate and hope and pray for the return of Jesus, when he will bring the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.
For the Jews under Roman occupation, however, it wasn’t just waiting with hope. It was longing for the current situation to end and a new, radically different and wonderful situation to start. It’s like you feel right now. You aren’t just looking forward to the holidays. You are longing for classes to be over, for the weight of finals to be lifted—the days of term papers and projects and hardship and slavery to end! I still remember the last final exam for my bachelor’s degree. It was a music history course. I distinctly remember walking out of the room and down the long hallway. I sort of imagined a band would be out in the hall playing a triumphant march with maybe some confetti floating down from the ceiling! The day of liberation was at hand!
That same anticipation you feel for getting past finals to the wondrous freedom of the holidays is similar to the hope and anticipation the Jews felt right before the coming of Jesus. Their ancient prophets had promised a Messiah would come and bring in the Kingdom of God, yet they had been ruled over by Gentiles for the past six hundred years. The only momentary break came about two centuries earlier, when Judas Maccabeus and his family led a revolt that resulted in a century of freedom. But then the Romans arrived, ushering in a time of occupation yet again. Surely, they asked with the prophet Habakkuk, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (1:2) Not only were Roman soldiers an ever-present reality, but landowners grew rich at the expense of the poor workers; local rulers grew rich off taxes; and religious leaders sneered at the commoners who didn’t have the time to keep every law and precept because they were too busy trying to eke out a living. Many hoped and prayed for a coming Messiah, a great king who would rise up to overthrow these wicked oppressors and establish the Kingdom of God with the Jewish nation at its very center.
This coming king—the Messiah—was expected to do two great things: defeat Israel’s enemies and restore true worship to the temple. The great kings set these two agendas in Israel’s past. David was the great warrior king who secured the nation from its enemies. Solomon was the great temple builder. The two rulers called “greatest” in the Old Testament book of Kings—Hezekiah and Josiah—also defeated Israel’s enemies and restored temple worship.
But something strange and different happened. The Messiah’s coming wasn’t what the Jews had expected. Jesus didn’t talk about defeating the Romans. He told Gentiles they had “great faith” and Jews to pay taxes to Caesar. He didn’t talk about restoring worship in the temple. Instead, he acted out a curse on the temple and talked about its coming destruction. This is part of the reason many Jews of his day didn’t accept him as Messiah and why Jews today don’t follow him. “He came to his own, but his own rejected him.” (John 1:11) It was sort of like the anticipation I told you I felt when I turned in my last final. The band wasn’t there. No confetti cannons. Not even a single party horn. Just a long empty hall that I walked down . . . alone.
That strange and wonderfully different coming was sort of like my empty hall. The Word who was with God and was God and through whom all things were made became flesh and dwelt among us. Yet he lived a life of sorrows. The legitimacy of his birth was questioned, since Mary was a virgin when she conceived. Joseph, his earthly father, likely died while he was a teen, so he lived in a single parent home. His family thought he was out of his mind to challenge the local officials as he did. His disciples followed him but didn’t really understand his teachings. The religious and political leaders persecuted him.
Eventually, he was arrested, abandoned, beaten, and put to death on a cross. If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah the Jews wanted—one who would overthrow the Romans and oppressors and restore true temple worship—then he was worthless to them! Yet his Father approved of the life he lived and so raised Jesus from the dead. The First Letter to the Corinthians pictures him as a king reigning over us from heaven until he has defeated our greatest enemies: sin, death, and the grave. The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus, through his ascension, has entered the true temple, the most holy place—heaven itself—to serve for all time as our high priest. So Christ followers see that he did what Messiah was supposed to do—defeat our enemies and restore temple worship—but he did it in a way no one foresaw.
This Jesus, who ascended to heaven as both priest and king, will return again one day. Advent is a time of waiting and watching. Part of the advent hope is that Jesus will return and make the Lord’s Prayer a reality: That God’s Kingdom shall one day come, that God’s will shall be done on earth just as it currently is done in heaven. When he comes, Jesus will raise all humans back to life and will serve as our judge. This is what Christians wait for, long for, hope for during Advent—the coming of our priest, our king, our judge—as this video show.
Again, here is something unexpected. There is one coming to judge our lives, yet this Judge is one who understands. Our Lord isn’t a deity who sits way up on high, detached and distant from our pain and suffering. Instead, Isaiah says, he is a man familiar with suffering. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. . . . This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. (5:7-10; 7:1)
Our judge knows what it is to wait, for he learned obedience through it. He knows our fears and understands our suffering and struggles. Our king has defeated our greatest enemies—sin, death, and the grave—and offers eternal life through his own blood given as a holy sacrifice. Not only has he entered heaven itself to serve as our Priest, but here on earth he has built a temple not made by human hands but crafted by the Spirit of God. Each believer—whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female—is a stone in this one temple that Jesus is building and on which he himself is the cornerstone.
If you do not know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, my prayer for you this Advent is that you will come to know this man who is God. You can come up after chapel and speak to me or grab a friend and ask them how to become a Christ follower. While Advent is a time of waiting, don’t wait any longer to know the gift of God we celebrate this season.
Bow your heads as I read the words of Isaiah for our closing prayer:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!
For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (64:1-4)
Thank you, Father, that in Jesus you have acted in ways that we did not expect. With anticipation and joy we wait for you to bring forth your Kingdom in all of its fullness. In the name of your Messiah, Jesus, we pray. Amen!