Which would be the better opening for a sermon on the last Sunday before Christmas? These words?
Joy to the world! The Lord is come“Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing
You probably now have the tune to this popular carol stuck in your head! However, perhaps these words from Jesus would make a better opening for a sermon so close to Christmas?
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.Mark 13:32,33,37 (NRSV)
I’m guessing that most people would pick the Christmas carol over Jesus’ words about the end of the world. But did you know that the carol “Joy to the World” is speaking about the same event Jesus was speaking about? The hymn writer was not originally writing about Christmas, but about the return of Christ!
We can also note that though we are so close to Christmas, we are not there yet. According to the Church calendar, Christmas does not begin until December 25th. Society begins celebrating Christmas much sooner of course, and since we Baptists are not good at following instructions anyway, we sort of follow along and get into the spirit of things early.
This is not Christmas, but Advent, a time set aside for preparing for the arrival of Jesus, both looking back to his arrival in Bethlehem, and looking forward to his return. At Christmas we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus. We have not really celebrated Advent if we have not looked forward. Today we are looking forward!
As we look forward, there are some things to keep in mind.
The first thing to keep in mind is to keep an open mind.
There are different ways of understanding the Scripture passages that speak of “the end of the world,” especially the Book of Revelation, but also the Scripture we are thinking of today, Mark chapter 13. While many Christians may assume Jesus was speaking about his return, most Bible scholars think that much of Mark 13 refers not to the end of the world, but the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in 70AD.
This makes sense of Jesus’ statement in verse 30:
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.Mark 13:28-30 (NRSV emphasis added)
The NRSV marks in a footnote that the “he” of “he is near,” which may cause us to immediately think of the future return of Jesus, can be translated “it,” as in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem which did happen within a generation. Indeed this is how the conversation began in the first place:
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”Mark 13:1-4 (NRSV)
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Some Bible scholars see a shift in the focus from the destruction of Jerusalem and the need to watch for the signs so the people of that day could get out of the city, to Jesus speaking about his return, of which there will be no sign, no warning:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.Mark 13:32-33 (NRSV)
Looking throughout history, many generations of Christians have had those who try to line up world events with Bible verses. So far every generation that has tried this has been wrong. One generation will turn out to be right someday. The point Jesus is making, however, is, don’t watch for signs, just be ready at any moment.
The second thing to keep in mind is that waiting for Christ’s return is an active thing.
When we use the word “waiting” we might think of waiting to reach a destination. You can fall asleep while waiting, but not if you are the driver! Jesus uses an example that puts us in the driver seat:
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. 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”Mark 13:34-37 (NRSV)
The doorkeeper had a task, one which required him to stay awake, to be alert. We do not want to fall asleep at the wheel!
We can think of waiting for Christ’s return as actively anticipating, as actively embracing, and leaning into the coming future God has in store for us. While we wait for Jesus to return, we don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel, but be actively stepping in the direction of Jesus.
The third thing to keep in mind are the examples of those who feel asleep at the wheel in the Christmas story, and those who were wide awake.
King Herod fell asleep at the wheel. Herod’s desire to destroy Jesus led to the terrible tragedy of many infants killed in and around Bethlehem. Needless to say, Herod was far from ready to embrace Jesus.
Herod was asleep at the wheel because he did not have a big enough way of looking at things. Herod was concerned about what people might believe about this one “born king of the Jews” and the threat that would pose to his power. Herod himself, did not believe Jesus was important. He was not watching for the arrival of the Christ.
Some people do not have a big enough view of things today. We can be guilty of this as Christians when we think that only the Bible can teach us anything. Science, history, art, and experience get pushed aside as potential sources of truth. We do this to our own detriment as Christians, and unfortunately, often to the detriment of others.
Having a too narrow view of things can also be true for the non-Christian, when, for example, someone claims that only science can teach us anything. Such folk will be found asleep at the wheel, not watching for Jesus’ arrival.
The religious leaders also fell asleep at the wheel, not having their minds open enough to consider that perhaps these foreign Magi just might have something to teach them about “their” Messiah. They were stuck in their own ideas and priorities. They may have been watching for the arrival of the Messiah, but they were not watching for the arrival of a Messiah that did not strictly fit their own ideas.
Some people do not have an open enough mind today. Their own ideas and priorities take precedence and they will be found asleep at the wheel, not ready to embrace Jesus on his arrival.
Mary and Joseph were wide awake. They were waiting and watching for Jesus’ arrival though I’m sure they didn’t feel entirely prepared. Laying a newborn in a manger does not sound near as prepared as a typical new mom in Canada is!
I am very hopeful that when Christ returns, he will understand if we feel unprepared. No matter when Jesus returns, none of us will feel that we have already “arrived.” We will still feel like there is so much more growth ahead. If we don’t then we definitely need to grow; in humility! However, let us remember that Jesus did not tell us to be the holiest person that ever lived, but to be fully awake. We are to be awake to God’s love and grace.
I am ready for Christmas, but not because I have done much by way of preparations. My wife has handled the lion’s share of the preparations. She normally does and is far better at it than I am.
When it comes to being ready to meet our Maker, Jesus has taken care of the preparations. Through his death and resurrection, through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus does a better job of preparing us to meet our Maker than we could ever do. We may not feel prepared, but in Christ we are prepared.
It might seem strange to talk about the end of the world this close to Christmas. However, it is not Christmas yet! This is Advent, when we look forward, not to the end, but to a new beginning. There was a new beginning at the birth of Jesus. There will be a wonderful new beginning when Jesus returns. With Jesus you are prepared. But are you awake?