The Watch Word is . . . WAIT

Sermon offered Sunday, November 27, 2011 at the Church of the Epiphany, New York City

Advent I, Year B:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9;
 Mark 13:24-37

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given us in Christ Jesus, for in every way we have been enriched in him” . . .  AMEN

I’ve been waiting for a chance to say this to all of you since I first came to Epiphany as a seminarian assistant over a year and a half ago. So today is my chance – and I’m borrowing my opening lines from the words of the letter that we heard earlier – the letter that Paul wrote the to church in Corinth.

I give thanks for you because since I first walked in those doors, you have welcomed me very graciously and lovingly – you’ve reflected Christ’s love in sharing your lives with me – you’ve opened the door to new ministries for Christ in my life – and for that I want to say thank-you!

And speaking of thanksgiving – I hope you all had a wonderful one this past week!  Moving on already  past Thanksgiving — —  the greeting of today is:  Happy New Year –  as in the Church’s new year, the new liturgical year, the first day of Advent.  And if the greeting of the day is “Happy New Year” the watch word of the day (and the watch word of the whole season of Advent) is “Wait” – and wait expectantly!

The prophet Isaiah says to God:  “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down  –  the mountains quaked at your presence . . . 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” – for those who are alert!  God works for those who wait for him . . .

In the Gospel Jesus tells us that while we wait we should – “Keep awake!”  Another translation says: “Stay at your post. Keep watch.”  If we look at the whole chapter of Mark that includes today’s Gospel reading (that’s the 13th chapter of Mark) Jesus repeats urgent words about watching, being aware, being alert, staying awake.  He repeats the message a total of four times.  So exactly what is it that we’re waiting for – what are we expecting – what are we looking for?

The short answer to that question, of course, is “the coming of Christ”.  But it’s a little more complicated than that because we know that Christ comes to us again and again – repeatedly.  He first came over 2000 years ago as a baby in a manager.  And now there’s the annual celebration and remembrance of that birth that we have marked on our calendars for December 25.  So that’s two “comings of Christ” – one in the past, one in the present.  And then there’s the coming of Christ as the Son of Man that todays gospel is talking about – the final coming, the apocalyptic coming at the end of time —  when we will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. When 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.”

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark takes place at the end of Jesus’ life, as he and four of the disciples are observing from a distance the great and grandiose temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus foretells the temple’s destruction – and at the same time he projects the end of time – the day of the final judgment – the day of the second and final coming of the Son of Man.  So in this context the period of waiting lies between the first Christmas and the day of this final coming – between the time when God came to earth incarnate , as the fully divine and fully human son of Mary – between that first coming and the end of time, when the realm of God will be fully established.

In the broader perspective – this is the time we’re living in now – the in-between times – the “already/not yet”Already Jesus has revealed God as the One who invites us into intimate relationship, the God of our salvation – but not yet are we and our world totally in ultimate communion, not yet fully absorbed into God.  And so we wait. . .

Advent is not just a countdown to Christmas on December 25 — it’s a watch and a wait for Jesus’ second coming as well.  Jesus says:   “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.”

What does he mean beware, keep alert?  It’s clear that Jesus does not intend for us to predict when he will return.  Instead he’s urging us to live as if his return is just around the corner, to live in joyful anticipation while we go about our day-to-day lives, always looking out for God’s unexpected appearances in everyday life.

In regard to this current Advent season, we obviously know when Christmas will arrive and what it will be like when it gets here.  Many of you probably have your line-up of yearly traditional celebrations with family and friends – social commitments, parties, shopping . . . For most of us it becomes a frenzy of obligations and deadlines, a flurry of activity, hardly what we would call a season of waiting.  During Advent, we may not be physically asleep — quite the opposite actually.  But in our wakefulness to worldly things, we tend to fall asleep to the Spirit of the season.  Jesus’ warnings may be a call for a few “time-outs” – a pause in the action to bring our focus back into the present moment – into the NOW – for it is only in the present moment that we can meet Jesus face to face.  And indeed, in this sense he has already arrived, he is constantly present to us – and it’s Jesus who is calling for us to wake up to his presence – a call to live with him, in him — in the here and now.

Advent can be a time of deep longing:  listen again to the words of Isaiah’s prayer:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – 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!”  Isaiah is calling out to God for relief in troubled times.  Our Advent season – the holidays in general – can be an intensely painful and chaotic time for some of us, especially if we’re experiencing financial stress, health challenges, family unrest, changing personal relationships . . .  But in and through these difficult circumstances, Advent can be a time to clear the way to new beginnings . . . to a new sense of humility,  a new sense of dependency on God, and a re-newed sense of the comfort and strength of God’s presence.

Isaiah continues:  “We all fade like a leaf,  — and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away . . . Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hands.”

The Advent season looks to new life.  It calls us to bring new life to birth – in ourselves and to the world around us.  And so we be begin the Advent watch – expectantly, longingly.  We wait again . . . we wait anew . . . for the coming light of Jesus Christ, Emanuel, God-with-us.

God’s Peace be with you. . .                                    Amen

Church of the Epiphany; York and 74th St; New York, NY

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