This sermon is based on the Lectionary Scriptures for Advent 1 (Year A), namely Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37. It was preached on November 29, 2020 at Kerr Presbyterian Church by Rev. KJ Norris.
Let us pray: Creator God, you remind us that the darkness of ignorance and doubt cannot overcome your life-giving Word. May your Holy Spirit, who first inspired these words of Scripture, shine your light and once again awaken us to the hearing and living of this radiant truth.
In Jesus’ name, Amen (The Worship Sourcebook, 454).
To start today’s sermon I thought about bringing up a cup of cold water and splashing it out on the congregation. That’s the kind of stuff that usually gets preachers run out of town, but I think that it’s what the prophets of old would have done today.
Today’s texts are like a cup of cold water splashed upon our faces. “Wake up!” they call to us. No more sleeping! It’s time to pay attention!
The season of advent is a call to preparation. It is a time when we turn and look inward and access our lives. In the Christian church calendar, today is the start of the New Year. When I first learned this I thought it was funny. I hadn’t grown up in a church that recognized Advent as the start of the year. I always thought that the International Standard Calendar—the calendar we all use to mark the days—the Gregorian calendar–was the start of the new year for Christians.
Most of us know that there are other calendars. For instance, some of us who are from Asia or Asian descent may celebrate what is known as Chinese New Year. That happens on a different day than the International Standard Calendar new year. But I didn’t understand that we all as Christians have a separate new year, too. Our new year starts today.
We begin here. With Advent. With preparation. Now is the time to reflect. Now is the time to set goals. Now is the time to begin again.
And I don’t know about you, but this year, I am ready for a new year. 2020 has been stressful. It’s been full of more change for most of us than we ever expected to see in our lifetimes. Some of this has been personal stress.
Many of you know that my sister Kimberly and I had two different car accidents this year. We were hit by two different people, both when we were basically parked. How does that happen? I know that there are others who have similar stories this year of crazy accidents they never saw coming.
And like many of you, this year has brought many changes with my work situation. In addition to being here, I was working as a nanny and at the seminary but the coronavirus changed all that. Anyone who has kids in school or is in school themselves or who works at a school or with kids has experienced drastic changes in work this year. For some it has meant works stops all together. For others it means changing daily routines and plans.
And this year has brought health challenges too. For me that has meant changes in medication and learning to deal with migraines anew when they had not been a problem for years. One of the things I love about Kerr is that we share our lives together and as we all know, many of us have had our own health challenges. Many of us know someone who has been made severally ill or died from the pandemic. Many of us have other illnesses we are struggling through.
I don’t know about you, but I am very glad to see this year come to a close. Everyone else has to wait another month for new year but we have the saving grace of the new year coming early. Hallelujah!
I am ready for Advent. For the new year. For renewal. For a chance to start over.
Today in our Scripture we encounter two groups of people who are also ready for things to start over. Ready for a new beginning. Ready for a fresh start.
The first group we find in the Book of Isaiah. They are a group who have been forced to leave their homes. Theses people of the Bible are immigrants, strangers in a strange land. War and devastation forced them from their homeland like so many others throughout history, and they are crying out to God in their suffering:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” they cry out to God, “come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known…so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” –Isa 64:1-2.
People of old long for God to come. Not just an angel sent by God or for God’s Spirit to walk with them as God had faithfully done through the ages. No, they longed for God to tear open the heavens. They longed for God’s own self to come. For God to come and change everything. For God to make the world right.
And God hears their prayer and answers. Now, I will pause and say—they were praying this prayer about 400 years before the answer comes. The people wait and wait for God. They long to see restoration come. They long to see their prayers answered. And God does. And I imagine that God answers their prayers in small ways every day, just as God answers ours. God is with them and hears them and is present with them in their suffering.
But the more full answer to their prayers comes 400 years later. In the form of Emmanuel, God with us, a baby born in a manger—fully God and fully human.
Our Lord Jesus Christ—the great answer to all their prayers.
And while Jesus is on earth, we are told in Mark 13, the disciples start to ask about this prophecy foretold. They want to know: When will the visions of Isaiah be fulfilled? When will the earth quake? When will the mountains be moved? When is that great and terrible day of the Lord when the sky will fill with darkness and the powers will be shaken?
And Jesus answers them. We didn’t read the whole answer. As always, I want to encourage you to do your own Bible study. Today you could go home and read all of Mark 13 and into the next chapter as well.
You’ll find that this passage is right before Jesus’s death. It is the last message we are given by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark before the Passover supper and the crucifixion.
We know that Jesus’ words here are true. Jesus predicts the falling of the Temple in Jerusalem and the persecution of people of faith. Jesus predicts that the coming of the darkness is near.
In fact, it is only days away. In just days from these words Jesus will be taken by the religious leaders. He will be sentenced to death for crimes committed against the state. He will be persecuted for preaching that the powers of this world have no power in comparison to the true power—the one true God. He will be hung for suggesting that it is the meek, not the powerful who will inherit the earth. He will be mocked for teaching what true sight is instead of the limited view of those of us who think we have sight and power.
And as Jesus hangs on the cross, the prophesies will be fulfilled. Darkness will come. At noon the sky will be come as dark as night, Mark will tell us. And as Jesus breaths his last breath the veil between heaven and earth will be ripped apart, just as they had prayed so many years before. In the Temple the curtain which stands between the holy of holies and the human worshippers is ripped from the top to the bottom.
No longer is there separation between God and humanity. No longer do sin and death reign. No longer are we bound by the things of this earth. Hallelujah. Praise the Lord. Renewal has come.
This is the very truth of the gospel. Prayers have been answered. Christ has come.
And yet, my life is real, too. Your lives are real, too. Our suffering is real. Our waiting is real. Our prayers are real.
Advent is the season of the New Year and the season of waiting.
It is the time of year when we shout out praises to God for we know that Christ has come and in Christ everything changed. In Christ there is hope. In Christ there is peace. In Christ there is joy. In Christ there is love.
And. And. We also stand in waiting. We recognize that this is not the end but only the beginning.
So, how should we start this new year? How should we begin today? What goals should we set? What newness should we long for? What posture should we take?
We need to hear Jesus’ call to us anew this day, “Keep Awake!” In the great classic The Screwtape Letters written by C. S. Lewis, the demon Screwtape reminds his protégé that if only he can convince humankind that the spiritual world does not exist, they will ignore God and fall prey to the effects of sin and evil without even knowing it.
We can become comfortable with lies so often told that we believe they are true. We can become comfortable with our own sins, believing that they are not really wrong and refusing to see how they are hurting our relationships. We can become comfortable with the injustices of the world, believing that time will heal all wounds instead of working each day for God’s kingdom to come on earth.
Keep Awake! Splash cold water on your face! Learn to listen to the still small voice that calls to us. For God is alive and at work and we will see it if we are awake.
As we keep awake we will become more and more aware of our own sin. And in doing this we do not lose hope but instead learn to pray as the Prophet Isaiah prayed, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever” (Isaiah 64:9).
The Psalms remind us that if we do pray this prayer, if we do turn from the ways of sin and evil, God does hear our prayer and forgives us. We are assured that God forgives all our iniquity and crowns us with steadfast love and honor. The Psalmist proclaims, “As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103). Let us confess the ways we have turned against God and harmed our neighbors and the earth and learn to live in the way of righteousness.
Let us place ourselves once again into the loving hands of our Savior who is the great Potter, knowing that we are the clay.
Lewis, C. S. (1942, Screwtape Proposes a Toast added in 1961). The screwtape letters.
The worship sourcebook. (2013). Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.