Isaiah 64:1-4; Mark 13:24-37 (December 3, 2023)
Something happened in our family this week. A joyful thing, but a little scary too. Our son, Adam, and his wife had been expecting twins. We knew that. We didn’t think they were coming quite this soon. Maybe sometime in the new year, we were told.
Babies have a habit of arriving on their own schedule. They’re not that predictable. And we’re not in charge of things either. So if you get a due date, please take it with a grain of salt.
These twins arrived early, and they are quite small. It’s amazing to see their tiny, perfectly formed, features. The important thing is they are healthy. And we are very thankful for that! We hope and pray it will continue to be so.
Advent is about a coming, an arrival. But it’s not here yet. In this way, Advent is quite different from Christmas, which is full-blown joy and celebration: Christ is born. God is with us!
Advent is different. A time to look forward with anticipation. Not only to the coming of a child long ago, but also to the coming of Christ at the end of all things. Advent is about God’s coming to be with us. And the terrible long wait that is part of our Christian journey of faith.
During these next few Sundays, we’ll be asking some questions that arise from our reading of scripture. And this morning’s question is “How long?”
How long must we wait for God to be with us? How long must we wait for the reign of God to be established? How long have you been waiting? How long are you willing to wait?
Last week, on Eternity Sunday, we said that God is with us everywhere, all the time. Whether we see it or not. And that is true! With the church through the ages we confess that Jesus is Lord. And that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
But here’s the thing. I know this in my life, and maybe you do too: We don’t always see the lordship of Christ. It doesn’t always feel as though God is with us. Advent begins with emptiness and longing. Where is God, we want to know.
This morning we read the words of Isaiah arising from a nation in exile. This prophet pleads with God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Come down from your dwelling place on high. Come and heal our brokenness here on earth. Come and make all things new. In this season of Advent, that is our prayer: That God would open the heavens and come down.
In our Gospel reading, we hear some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. Mark chapter 13 begins with them admiring the stones of the Jerusalem temple. But Jesus says that earthly temple will come tumbling down.
And it did. In the year 66, around the same time that the Gospel of Mark was being written, the Roman Army laid siege to Jerusalem. They sacked the city and destroyed the temple, the house of God.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aelia_Capitolina_(15522086868).jpg" width="243" height="75" />Mark 13 is known as the “little apocalypse.” Like all apocalyptic writing it uses powerful symbolic language to describe a situation of crisis. When Jerusalem was destroyed, it must have seemed like the end of the world. Jesus speaks of cosmic upheaval. The stars in heaven falling, the powers that hold the universe shaken.
Where is God in the presence of such things? When does it end? When will God’s reign finally be established? “How long must we wait?” the church asks in every generation. “How long?”
Waiting isn’t easy. A few days ago I was held up at a train crossing. It’s not unusual in our city. Don’t those trains seem to come through at the most inconvenient time?
I’d arranged with someone to meet them at a certain time and place. I was driving down Warman Road, coming toward the intersection at 33rd Street. Everything was going as it should. The light changed ahead of me. No problem. But then I saw it, coming around the corner, ever so slowly.
The red lights at the crossing began to flash. The barriers came down. My heart sunk.
Four big diesel engines rumbled across in front of me. This train was going to be a long one. Despondent, I turned off the key, folded my arms, and began to wait.
I wish I could say that I waited patiently. But I did not. I knew this train would make me late. And we are so driven by schedules and deadlines. “What a waste,” I fumed. “How long will it be?”
When is the last time you had to wait? And what was it you were waiting for? And how did you wait? Patiently or impatiently? Angrily, anxiously, fearfully, calmly?
Waiting is part of our human lives. Waiting for a child to be born. Waiting for an appointment. Waiting to speak with a real live person, not just a recording on the other end of the line.
Waiting for test results. Waiting for treatment. Waiting for a parcel to arrive. Waiting for a visit, or a holiday. Or a day of release, a day of healing, a day of freedom.
Waiting for a promise to be kept. Waiting for prayer to be answered, all these years. Waiting for Jesus, for his presence, his peace, his comfort. His salvation.
There’s a song by the band U2 that riffs on the words of Psalm 40. It’s from their album titled “War,” and it goes like this:
“I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He lifts me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay
“I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song
“How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long
How long to sing this song?”
They’d sometimes end their concerts this way: One-by-one, the band would leave the stage as the audience continued to sing the refrain “How long to sing this song?”
How long must we wait? I wish I could give you an answer.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says the time is near. “When you see the branches of the fig tree become tender, and it puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” I love that image of a tree on the cusp of bearing fruit. In a dark winter world, it speaks of God’s new life coming to be!
Apocalyptic literature may sound frightening. But it’s intended to have the opposite effect. Not to frighten but to encourage. To give us hope and strength. To say that Jesus is Lord. Even if he seems very far away.
When those stars are falling, then “you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with power and glory.” The fig tree will blossom and bear fruit. The world will be put right.
But now, listen to this: “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So don’t bother with predictions. They’ll probably be wrong. Over the course of history, they mostly have been.
Some things are simply not ours to know. But take hope, nevertheless. Know that Christ is coming. Even in the darkest time he is near, very near. Near. But not yet. So we must wait.
And how should we wait? Well, don’t fall asleep, says Jesus. Stay alert. Be on the watch. God is God of the unexpected.
Isaiah pleaded that God would “Come with fire. Make the mountains quake and the nations tremble,” as in days of old. But one starlit night, the Christ-child slipped into his earthly mother’s arms. And only a few lowly shepherds knew anything about it.
We think God acts in big, dramatic fashion. And that may be so. But God acts in small things too. Christmas is about things that almost went unnoticed. A tiny child was born. It will change the world.
“How long must we wait?” I can’t answer that question for you. I can only encourage you to wait and see how God might show up unexpectedly in your life. For none of us know when the master of the house will come.
Jesus said the Son of Man is near, standing at the gate. We should note that He gave these words to the disciples just before he was crucified and the world, as they knew it, fell apart. In that great darkness, they must have been terrified.
How long? Three days? Three years? Three thousand years? Jesus tells us to watch and be alert, trusting that even in the darkest of our days something is happening! In a world of impatience and instant almost everything, we are called to watch and wait.
“How long, how long, how long
How long to sing this song?”
And then, suddenly, it happens!
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
I invite you to take a few moments now and ponder these questions.
- Can you remember a time when God was with you while you waited?
- What are you waiting for now?
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/40_(song)#Live_performances, Accessed Dec. 2, 2023.“How long?”
Isaiah 64:1-4; Mark 13:24-37 (December 3, 2023)