Grace Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2020, Advent 1B (recorded)
Waiting for the Day of the Lord
The liturgical season of Advent, which we mark beginning today, tends to start off with a bang.
While the liturgical season is framed as both remembering the coming of Jesus the first time and looking ahead to the return of Christ, the structure of the season tends to move backwards. That “looking ahead” part of the season tends to be confined to the first Sunday, while later Sundays move backward from there – presenting the proclamation of John the Baptizer in advance of Jesus’s public ministry, and finally working back to the events before the birth of Jesus such as Gabriel’s announcement to Mary or other events, depending on the gospel of the year. (With this new liturgical year B focused on the gospel of Mark, there is no pre-birth narrative to work from, so bits get borrowed from the gospels of John and Luke; but that’s a few weeks ahead.)
The texts for this first Sunday of Advent B do bring the fireworks. The gospel selection for today brings us Mark’s “mini-apocalypse,” a spectacle to taunt even the flashiest of Hollywood special-effects types. Those first verses are the stuff of more hellfire-and-brimstone “rapture” sermons than you can shake a stick at, with the sun and moon going dark, stars falling from the sky, and “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with angels scattering in all directions to gather in the faithful. The verses that follow turn to encouraging disciples to “be alert” and “keep awake” with all sorts of sign-watching and being prepared thrown in. It’s a nerve-jangler of a passage, to be sure.
The reading from Isaiah cuts a surprisingly similar profile, although from a different perspective; rather than foretelling the coming of the Lord, the prophetic oracle is practically begging for it. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” – that would also be a Hollywood-worthy spectacle, but here the tone is of longing rather than of warning. Speaking from the midst of a people who have fallen away from faithfulness and have lost touch with God altogether, the prophet pleads for God to return – with as much drama as necessary, one might say.
So it’s no surprise that these two passages get most of the attention on this day, to be sure. However, it might just be that in this time of Advent, particularly in this year of all years, the most important or needful statement out of today’s readings might just be in the one passage that quite possibly no preacher ever has preached to inaugurate this liturgical season: the epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth.
This is at least the second letter Paul has written to this church, although it is the first we have in scriptural canon. Apparently some things have gone off the rails since Paul last wrote, and the Corinthians have gotten to be a bunch of folks rather pleased with themselves, for all the wrong reasons. The backhanded complimentary tone of this “thanksgiving” points to the trouble spots; it turns out the Corinthians are rather proud of the “knowledge” mentioned in verse 5 and the “spiritual gifts” noted in verse 7, as if, somehow, they were themselves responsible for them or had somehow earned them. Paul gently rebukes that idea, reminding the Corinthians that both of those were gifts of God; to put it in a modern idiom, Paul reminds the folks in this church that, apart from the gifts and the grace and the strengthening that comes from God, you aren’t ‘all that.’
But the key phrase, really, is the seemingly offhand line that comes after that spiritual gift bit: “…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (emphasis mine)
The word to the Corinthians, as it is to any church that thinks it is ‘all that,’ is: you do not hasten the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” by your knowledge or your spiritual gifts or your money or your votes or by any thing you do. As Jesus says in that mini-apocalypse passage in Mark, nobody knows when that day will be, not even the Son, only the Father. And you can’t do anything to change that or hurry it up. What you do is wait.
Waiting is not passive. Waiting is doing the work the church has always been called to do. Waiting is ministering to one another and to the world around us as Jesus showed us how to do.
That’s why we keep going with things like St. Francis House and Family Promise even in this time. That’s why you are still making your pledge commitments to the work and ministry of this congregation (you are doing this, right?) Because waiting, in this case, means doing the work.
If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic tide, it is that we live in a society that is abhorrently bad at waiting. Had we had leadership and citizens who were willing to do the hard work of waiting back when this virus first appeared, we wouldn’t be the world’s official coronavirus petri dish. (For evidence of this claim I offer basically every other country in the world.) We have proven ourselves incapable of or unwilling to wait, to the point of hostility and threat of violence. Apparently, the numbers of those dead and sickened cannot hold a candle to the right – no, imperative – to have exactly what we want and to have it right now. We have utterly failed at waiting and it has cost us.
Guess what? When it comes to the “day of the Lord,” that is our main job: to wait. We do the stuff Jesus called us to do, and we keep doing it, and we keep doing it. We don’t get to ‘force the issue’ or hasten the timetable in any way. We don’t get to negotiate an accelerated schedule. We don’t earn our way to a quicker second Advent. We don’t manipulate Jesus into an early return.
We do our job, and we wait.
For the time of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #347, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; #—, I Thank My God for You; #348, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending