(Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
[Jesus said]24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then 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.
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
This is the end. Or is it? Those of us who faithfully attend service each week have likely caught on to a little trick I use with my sermons. I like to end each of my sermons with the 4- or 5-word title I give them. This helps give direction and focus to my messages. You see, I like building up to my sermon titles. And, yes, ‘this is the end’ is the title for today’s message. Which raises the logical question, ‘why place the title at the front of the message?’ Perhaps because the very nature of such a statement places us on edge. We don’t like to hear the expression, ‘this is the end.’ Some of us have heard it at the end of a struggling relationship with someone. Some of us have heard it at the end of thrilling ride at an amusement park. Some of us have heard it at the end of an engrossing movie. Wherever we’ve heard it, hearing ‘this is the end’ tends to make us sad…or anxious…or angry…or uncomfortable. We don’t want it to be the end! If only there was a little more time! We’d do things differently. We’d behave differently. We’d appreciate the time we did have more. If only…
Indeed, it is a statement that becomes more and more profound throughout our lives. When we’re young, we’re told ‘this is the end’ and it doesn’t seem to faze us. There are other relationships to be had, other rides to experience, and other movies to watch. The older we get, the more we realize that there just aren’t an endless number of relationships or rides or movies. Life only gives us a certain amount of relationships, rides, and movies. Ask any of our seniors we are recognizing this morning what they feel when they hear the expression, ‘this is the end.’ Their response will be quite different from that of the teenager. Some of them will welcome life’s endings, others will dread life’s endings. But none of our seniors will consider life’s endings as lightheartedly as our youth.
The wisdom of our seniors is reflected in the assigned readings for this week. The readings from the last few weeks have prepared us as we set out on our Advent journey faithfully and fearlessly listening. These four weeks are a time of waiting for our Lord and Savior to come to us. We do not wait idly. We continue working at spreading the gospel to people who haven’t heard good news. We let people know that Christmas isn’t just about gift-giving and feasting and frivolity. There’s a purpose to the celebration. There’s a reason why we’re celebrating. We’re not simply celebrating for sake of celebrating. We’re celebrating the birth of our Lord! We’re not celebrating the end of the year. We’re celebrating the birth of our Lord! Don’t get me started on people who want to take Christ out of the celebration…
But getting back to our readings, we’ve been assigned peculiar readings to mark the beginning of the Advent season. Rather than herald a new beginning with Christ’s birth, our readings instead rely heavily on calling God to come to us in powerful ways. The prophet Isaiah cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when the 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!” Clearly Isaiah didn’t want a gentle God to come to him and his people. Isaiah wanted a God of powerful presence. Isaiah saw that God’s people had fallen away from their relationship with God. God’s people felt ignored, unloved, and bitter. Isaiah lamented, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” Like children who aren’t getting enough attention, God’s people behaved badly just for the sake of getting God’s attention, albeit His anger and wrath. Isaiah pleaded with God to engage His people, to force himself upon His people. A restored relationship with His people would do wonders in getting them to end their bad behavior. Their sin had taken them away from God just as our sin takes us away from God. We need a powerful God to break through our overwhelming sin. Only a powerful God can get us to end our bad behavior.
Similarly, David cries out to God in the Psalm to “stir up your might, and come to save us!” David’s people were no different than Isaiah’s people. David’s people were no different than us. OUR sin can get the better of us. God’s might is stronger than our sin, though, and God loves us so much to not leave us to our sin. Isaiah wisely pleads, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” God IS our Father! We are but clay in the potter’s hands. We can only be as “bad” as the potter allows us to be. The shape we take depends on the potter. God wouldn’t have taught us righteousness if He wanted us to remain in sin. God wants us rise above our sin and be righteous as He is righteous.
How did God teach us righteousness? How did God show His awesome power and might and break through our sin? Through the Son!! In our reading from Mark, we hear Jesus say, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Oh, what a clever God indeed! God comes to us in the best possible way that we would understand Him–as a man. God can take the form of anything known and unknown. God could have answered the pleas of Isaiah and David by coming to us in a form that would boggle our minds. We would spend all our time and efforts trying to figure out how God could exist in such a form that we would completely miss what God was trying to say to us. There are many among us who are still boggled by how God comes to us a man. They’re caught up in figuring out how God could exist in such a form and miss what God is trying to say. What is God trying to say by coming to us as a man? That He loves us and we are to love Him and each other. Who cares about HOW He is able to do it. What matters is WHY He is able to do it. Because He loves us!!
Not all of us are sad or anxious when we here the statement, ‘this is the end.’ Indeed, some of us are quite happy to hear the statement! The suffering, the lost, the confused, and the fearful among us are gladdened to hear the statement. For them, an ending is actually a beginning. I love how the calendar year and the advent year illustrate this duality. Advent and Christmas mark the beginning of a new Christian year while also happening at the end of the calendar year. The coming of Christ is both a beginning and an ending. It is God’s answer to the pleas of leaders like David and Isaiah. It is God’s powerful breaking into our world of sin and suffering. There is no other form that God could have taken that would have been as powerful. In a sense, God HAD and HAS to come to us as a man. We wouldn’t fully understand and be understood by God unless He came and comes to us as a man. The coming of Christ is an ending to the power of sin and the fear of death. Christ cannot take away our sin and death. We must still wrestle with sin and death even with Christ in this world. What Christ IS able to do is give us an alternative to sin. Christ gives us an example of righteousness that takes away the power of sin. As faithful disciples of Christ, we are no longer slaves to our sins but freed to love and serve each other. What Christ IS able to do is give us a fearlessness about death. Christ conquered death and through him we have eternal life. How can we be afraid of death if we know Christ, the key to eternal life? We can’t.
And so, we return to the statement, ‘this is the end.’ At the beginning of this message, I posed the statement and followed it with a question: ‘or is it?’ There seems to exist a duality between beginnings and endings in our readings for today and in our daily lives. There is an old adage about when a person closes a door, a window opens somewhere else in the house. So it is with life. Even when relationships end, when jobs end, when school ends, when life itself ends, there are windows of opportunity and enrichment that begin elsewhere. As we wait through this Advent season, let us be aware of both the hopeful beginnings and endings in our lives. Let us be aware that even the frantic holiday shopping just began this weekend, it too will come to end eventually!!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.