Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Victoria and I went, as usual, to the sales on Black Friday. We went early, but we weren’t there when they opened the doors. There were items we wanted, but nothing that was worth getting up before 3:00 a.m. We were disappointed at a few stores, but since we didn’t have high expectations were didn’t mind. We found plenty of bargains and filled many of the wishes on our Christmas lists.

The stores were crowded in our town, but it was not overwhelming. I didn’t hear any reports of people storming the doors or fighting over merchandise. Even the people standing in line were pleasant and happy where we shopped. But things were not so calm in other places. An employee even died in the stampede of customers at a store that didn’t open their doors fast enough. The shoppers broke down the doors to get in. I wondered how many people were disappointed anyway. Sadly, the items they were standing in the cold to purchase will be available again: there's always another sale, another deal, another shipment of the ‘perfect gift.’ Sometimes we just have to be more patient than we want to be.

It has been two thousand years or so since Jesus walked in flesh, died on the cross, rose from the tomb and went to sit at the right hand of God the Father. For two thousand years, Christians have expectantly waited for His return in glory. As we read Mark’s text, we get a sense of the urgency that they felt. The world in which they lived was chaotic and the hope they held came with an expectation of immediacy. They were suffering right then and there. The lessons of Advent highlight this sense of urgency, and yet most of us today no longer have that same expectation. After all, two thousand years of waiting has not accomplished anything. Tomorrow is another day. There is plenty of time to prepare for the day.

It is hard to believe, but we are already considering the scriptures for the second Sunday in Advent. There is still too much to do. As I sit here planning my schedule I wonder if there is enough time to complete everything. Will I get my shopping done? Will my decorating be up early enough? Will I be able to make all my favorite Christmas cookies? I might think I have plenty of time, that tomorrow is another day, but the reality is that if I wait to prepare some things will not be ready. I'm standing here between the promise and the fulfillment of the promise. I can't just sit here and wait. There is work to do.

I’m sure most of us are tired of hearing about the end times. After all, we’ve had so many texts dealing with eschatological issues over the past month or so and it is not a subject we like to dwell upon. We live for today, we look forward to that day but we do not want to make it the entire focus of our faith. Yet, the message for this Second Sunday in Advent is not really about what is to come, but about what we are going to do while we wait.

Peter, or the writer of the Epistle for today, lived in the day when the people were hopeful for Christ’s imminent return. They were expecting Him at any moment. They were beginning to doubt the words of Jesus because it seemed to be taking so long. They wondered where He might be and why He was late. There were, I’m sure, even some who were trying to hasten His coming. Every generation of believers since Jesus made these promises have had people who thought they were the generation to see the Coming of Christ. Ours is no different. After all, it has been two thousand years. Isn’t it time? Prophets have tried to discern the actual moment Christ would come, and cults have built up around ideas and practices meant to spur God on to fulfilling His promises. Every generation since Peter’s day has waited for and tried to hasten the coming of the Lord.

But we learn from Peter that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day for God. What has taken forever for us has only been a moment for God. The time has not yet come because everything is not yet ready. God is patient because not everyone for whom the promise has been given has heard it. There is great hope in this message: God does not want any to perish. He is patient and longsuffering. Christ will not come until all is ready.

In this passage, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, “longsuffering to you-ward.” There is work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ are out there in the world, walking in darkness. We are the light, sent to give hope and peace to all whom God has chosen. God is patient, not for those who haven’t heard, but for us. He is waiting until we do what we have been called to do. God’s patience is our salvation. He is waiting until we have accomplished all that He has commanded us to do. It might happen in this generation, but it might not happen for another thousand years. After all, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day to God. He will fulfill His promises in His time according to His word.

We are reminded that the promise has been fulfilled. Christ was born, Christ died, and Christ rose again. Christ lives. But we await the coming of our King, the return that will complete the will and purpose of God. We live in a time that is between the fulfillment of the promise and the completion of the promise.

In today’s Psalm, we hear a message of God’s grace. The early church community understood this psalm to be the prayers of a people who have been saved but are waiting for salvation to be complete. We still live in this time of waiting today. That’s what Advent is all about. We know Christ has come. We know that Jesus was born in the manger at Christmas and that He died on the Cross and rose again at Easter. It is finished. But we still wait for everything to be complete. We are wandering in this world, waiting for the second coming of Christ when God’s promises will finally be fulfilled.

Remembering this, we see Mark in a whole new light. The first verse of today’s Gospel passage does not sound like a sentence. It appears to be a title, “The Beginning of the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This name means something. Not only is Mark introducing the subject of the story and the main character, he is telling us that this is just the beginning. This is the first book in a much longer story. Mark himself did not write anything beyond the Gospel, but he was telling us from the beginning that there was more. Last week we heard Jesus speak at the end of His ministry, and this week we get to see the beginning. Last week we saw Jesus telling those of faith to stay awake, to keep watch, to be ready. This week we learn the beginning of the story.

Mark does not begin with a nativity narrative. He doesn’t tell us what happened at the stable or with Jesus as a child. He does not tell us about wise men or shepherds or angels. Mark begins with John the Baptist. Isaiah wrote that there would be a prophet preparing the way of the Lord, pointing the people toward the One for whom they were waiting. That prophet was John. He came from the wilderness to preach repentance and to call the people to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. That story continues into today. We still call people to baptism, but we have been given a greater gift than John, because Jesus Christ baptizes with more than just water. What John started, Jesus completed and made even more real because now the Holy Spirit brings a lasting, eternal forgiveness. John was cleansing the people to make them ready for the Lord. The Lord now makes the people His forever and ever.

All our scriptures today touch on this time between the promise and the fulfillment. In Isaiah, we hear that all men are nothing but grass, that we will wither and die just like the flowers. As we look around our chaotic world, it is easy to see the truth in this statement and to think that there is nothing better. War comes and seems to stay forever. Natural disaster destroys the earth and everything in it and it seems like things will never return to normal. We try to restore relationships but we can't really let go of our anger or pain and we think that wholeness or healing is an impossible dream.

But while Isaiah does give us the truth of our condition, he also provides the promise—the Lord GOD comes with might. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and will gently lead those that have their young.” This prophetic utterance was given for those who'd been exiled in Babylon and who were looking forward to the promised restoration to Jerusalem. In verse one we see that forgiveness was already theirs. “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she hath received of Jehovah’s hand double for all her sins.”

It might seem as though the promise is already fulfilled, for the forgiveness is theirs. Yet, Isaiah goes on to say “Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God.” The people are stuck between the promise and the fulfillment. They still must wander in the wilderness before they will know the full measure of God's shepherding care. We are also wandering but we know that the promise has been fulfilled.

We wait, we watch, we hope, but it is not for us to stand still. We have a job to do. There are people who need to see the light. We are called to share the Good News, like John, but our message is even greater than his. God’s grace has won. Now, let us wait in this time with hope and expectation, shining the light that is Christ to the world so that they too might be saved. And who knows, the one for whom God is waiting might just be your next door neighbor.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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