27 November 2011, Advent
As children, my cousins and I spent time speculating on the “Hows” of Santa Claus. Sri Lanka has an average temperature of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit, with absolutely no snow, and definitely no fireplaces with chimneys. Come Christmas we started worrying: How would Santa get in when there were no chimneys? Should we leave doors open for him to walk in? Would Rudolph and the reindeer die because there was no snow? When we grew up Santa figured at Christmas in a slightly different way. Some people felt that the best gift Santa could bring a young Sri Lankan woman was a jolly good husband! I had many whispers in my ear from well meaning friends and relatives “ask Santa to bring you a nice young man this Christmas”! (In case you are wondering – Paul definitely didn’t arrive on the back of Santa’s sledge, and wasn’t lobbed down a chimney either!)
As adults, we all get things wrong: we speculate wrongly and wait for the wrong things. Like the Israelites did in the time of Isaiah and Christ. The two passages we read today are all about waiting for God’s intervention in human time and history. Isaiah 64 talks of God coming in power to deliver His people: “oh that you would rend the heavens and come down… the mountains tremble before you… cause the nations to quake before you.” In the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks of similar earth-shaking events and the nations trembling as He returns in glory. There is the same feeling of waiting and watching in both passages – for the first and second coming of Christ.
I don’t like waiting – even waiting for a few minutes for Paul sets my teeth on edge! But the people of Israel had watched and waited a very long time! Not minutes nor months, not decades, but centuries. Generations. I would have been a terrible Israelite. They were tired of being enslaved, exiled, and defeated. They had been subdued by various Empires, their God derided, and their temple violated. We find them waiting for God to send someone who would put everything right but, they didn’t know when it would happen. The Israelites must have wondered where God was, and when He would intervene. Although their morale must sometimes have reached rock bottom, nevertheless they held on to the hope that their God would save them. The Advent hymn we sing “O come o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” is a powerful evocation of the nation of Israel waiting for the “deliverer” to come.
And then Jesus came! The Jews were waiting for God to come in power and send a mighty Deliverer. Yet what God gave them was not what they expected. He gave them Himself.
Is it possible that the 1st Century Jews were looking so hard at the Scriptures which spoke of a triumphant deliverer (who, they prayed, would drive out the Romans) that they missed the signs of the Suffering Servant who would deliver them from Sin and Death? With these expectations, it was hard to believe that the Holy God (he whose name must not even be spoken), had emptied Himself of power, taken on human flesh, taken the form of a servant and been born in their midst.
Although they had expected a Messiah, Jesus himself was quite unexpected in every possible sense of that word. The Jews didn’t recognise the Messiah they had been awaiting for centuries! When Christ was born – it was in obscurity, to ordinary parents. It was not the Jewish scholars, rulers, teachers or the respectable people who were told, but Shepherds, who were uneducated social outcasts, and Wise men from the East, who were foreigners – not God’s people.
The Jews even found it hard to understand the adult Jesus who they sometimes referred to as “the Carpenter’s son” – and Jesus himself despaired at their blindness. On the other hand, the shepherds and wise men simply came and worshipped. Often, just like the Jews of Jesus’ Day, we have preconceived notions and expectations of God that get in the way of us recognising and worshipping Him.
When Jesus was born, most Jews expected a Messiah who was a sort of powerful combination of Elijah, Joshua, Moses and David, to come and lead a powerful rescue from the Romans. An explosive Molotov Prophet. If you notice, in Isaiah, their first appeal to God is “come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you” and act on our behalf. When they called out to God to come down and deliver them, they didn’t REALLY expect Him to do that by stepping down into Human history in weakness and frailty. Not by a long shot.
I have often felt frustrated about the people in Jesus’ life time. What a wasted opportunity! Imagine not recognising Christ as God among them! Unfortunately, the Jews, had had their fill of false Messiahs – a few of them had already been crucified together with their followers. What the Jews now wanted was a really really powerful man. Especially one who wouldn’t end up crucified! Why did Judas betray Jesus and Peter deny him? I think they, like many other Jews, may have given up on Jesus, believing Him to be another false Messiah. The crowd that greeted Jesus as King with Hosannas when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is the crowd that shouted “crucify him” and asked for Barabbas to be released instead. Why? Jesus pointed out why. All they wanted was food, miracles, healing, and freedom from the Romans. They didn’t really want Him. The crowd had decided that someone who would allow himself to be arrested by the authorities was not the Messiah. He was not a Strong, Mighty or Powerful Saviour who was going to defeat Rome and set them free! And yet Christ brought the greatest freedom… from the oppression of sin and the fear of death. The freedom to live life to the full.
Now let us jump to the end of the World, Time and History. Like the Jews, we are waiting for the King to come. We too have our theories about exactly how it will work out (and we heard about some of them from Tracey, last Sunday).
But it is not only Christians who are interested in the end of the World and Universe, but science fiction writers, and scientists, in fact lots of people. It is no longer a question of whether the world will end, but how? Some say the Universe will collapse in fiery heat and pressure, some say it will expand and cool leaving a cold dead empty waste. All we know is that the world as we know it will end when Christ returns.
Imagine the scene from Mark: the sun grows dark, the moon stops shining, the stars fall from heaven, the heavens are shaken. When I read passages like this now, what comes to mind are “Dr Who” episodes where a massive alien space ship arrives and darkens the skies, terrifying people! The end of the world! Conversely, when I actually watch Dr Who episodes like that, what comes to mind are Biblical descriptions of the end times! (Paul says I have an “interesting mind”)
What Jesus describes is not just His return but the end of the world as we know it now. The next chapter of Isaiah and the book of Revelations make it clear that it will also be the beginning of a new heaven and a new Earth. Christ’s return, unlike his first coming, is not obscure or quiet. He comes as King, powerful and mighty. It will be a grand finale to the grand epic drama of human history. The gospel of Matthew even talks of trumpets sounding!
However, in closing I want to focus briefly on the parable of the Master and his servants. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells two more, similar stories: the parable of the ten virgins unprepared for the arrival of the bridegroom (which we heard last week), and the parable of the talents, of the lazy and unfaithful servant. All of these parables are about being prepared for Christ’s coming. But in this concluding parable, Jesus explains that He is leaving His disciples – and that includes us – in charge of His Kingdom on Earth. He explains that He, the Master, is assigning each of us a task to do until He returns. There is a sense of urgency in the story – “be alert… be on guard… keep watch”. This doesn’t mean “sit around, but keep an eye out so you can look busy (or holy) when I get back”; it means be “careful” that you have not failed your calling when He returns!
If the Queen leaves Buckingham palace for a long period of time and then returns all of a sudden, unannounced, I am sure she will find everything in perfect order. Her horses cared for, corgis fed, the palace in immaculate order, the gardens beautifully maintained. The life of the palace would continue almost exactly as if She were there, or were coming back that very day. The Queen would be able to walk in at any time, look around and say – “wonderful…One is very pleased.” Jesus is saying “tend my world and my people, do the work I have given you to do till I come back”.
So as we move into this season of Advent to celebrate the first coming of Christ, we remember the Jewish world waiting for deliverance, waiting for God to intervene. We remember that the Jews’ expectations were wide of the mark, and that they did not recognise God when He came. The Jews expected too little. They wanted salvation from the Romans, never dreaming that something far more magnificent was happening… that God was stepping down into human history and bringing His Kingdom to Earth, and deliverance to the whole World!
As God’s people looked forward and waited for God to send a Saviour, they remembered God’s intervention and deliverance on their behalf in the past. But they forgot who they really were. They forgot that they were a nation called and chosen by God, that they were supposed to be God’s people, and a Light to the nations to draw people to Him. They were not that interested in being a Light to the nations, they wanted God to come and smite the nations. They were supposed to watch for the coming of the Messiah, and to serve God as they waited, but they didn’t – and so many of them missed knowing Christ when He walked among them.
Jesus, when He came, established the Kingdom of God on earth and we are now part of that Kingdom. Every Sunday we pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done, in earth as in Heaven”. We, like the Israelites, need to remember that Christ has called us to be a Light to the world. We remember His first coming through Advent and at Christmas, we remember His life as we read the scripture, we remember His death and Resurrection as we share the bread and wine at Communion. Like the Israelites, we as God’s people, awaiting the coming of the King, need to be doing the work He has assigned to us. We are to care for His world, its creatures and its people, and draw others to His Kingdom.
There is one vital question we can ask ourselves during Advent, as we look back to the birth of Christ and forward to His coming again. It is not “When will he come?” It is not “what exactly will it be like?” (though I find it fun to speculate, that is really to miss the point). The question we must ask ourselves is this: “Are we living as the people of God, and living as a light to the World?”
Let me conclude with the words of a modern hymn:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me; `
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.