Ready for Christmas? There is a Bigger Day to Prepare For! (Thinking Through Mark 13:28-37)

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
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

“Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts

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.”
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?”

Mark 13:1-4 (NRSV)

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.

In Conclusion

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?

When We Were Hopeless and an Angel Set Us Straight (Thinking Through Luke 2:11)

It can all seem rather hopeless. Between nuclear weapons and climate change, it can feel like humanity is doomed. We wonder if this is going to end well for us. Or when bad things happen to good people and all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people, it can all feel rather haphazard. Is God really in charge, and if so, is there really a plan? Speaking of God being in charge, looking at past history, it seems like the ones in charge have often used their power for evil. It doesn’t go well for the people under their care.

Is there hope?

According to the angel who spoke to the shepherds that first Christmas, there is great hope:

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12 (NLT emphasis added)

The angel described this baby with three words that bring great hope no matter how things seem.

When it seems humanity is doomed.

If scientists are correct, then it appears that we really are doomed. We’ve got bigger problems than climate change. There is such a thing as universe change. Scientists tell us that the expansion of the universe is accelerating and that ultimately, our universe will cease to be life-permitting at some point. That is a long, long way in the future. But it is still the future! Don’t worry, the heating up of our sun and the boiling of our oceans will get us before the expansion of the universe does.

According to the angel, there is good, hopeful news: To you is born this day a Saviour.

When we use the term “Jesus is Saviour” people often have in mind one of at least three things. We should have in mind all three:

  1. Salvation from the eternal consequence of our sin which separates us from God. Jesus brings reconciliation with God, saving us from death, changing our future from everlasting death to resurrection to everlasting life.
  2. Salvation from harmful ways of living which messes up relationships, inter-personal, and inter-national. Jesus saves us by teaching us and showing us the better way of love.
  3. Salvation not just of of people, but all of creation. With our resurrection also comes God’s re-creation of everything:

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

Romans 8:18-21 (NLT emphasis added)

If we listen to scientists, and we should, it would seem we are in fact doomed. If we listen to the angel, and we can, we discover that the Creator who spoke all of creation into existence, stepped into creation as Saviour. We are not doomed.

When it seems like God is neither in charge, nor operating by a plan.

When bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and random things happen randomly to all people, it would appear there is no one in charge, there is no plan.

If God is in charge and working out a plan, why couldn’t he stop this virus from spreading, that cancer from spreading, this train from crashing, and that tornado from landing? Is God really in charge?

According to the angel, there is good, hopeful news: To you is born this day the Messiah.

Some people think God created the world, wound it up, then stood back. The fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, both words meaning “anointed one,” speaks to God stepping in.

The fact there is an “anointed one” speaks to God’s plan:

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.

Ephesians 1:9-10 (NLT)

Paul was not speaking about mystery in the sense of something that cannot be understood, though there is that kind of mystery, in life, and faith. There may well be an element of mystery in why some seem destined to suffer more than others.

When Paul spoke of mystery, he was referring to something that was hidden, now made plain. What is made plain in the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the ‘anointed one’, is that God has a plan.

If we look at the random events of our world, we can lose hope that God is in charge and operating according to a plan. If we look to that one event, the birth of the Messiah, we find hope that all is going according to God’s plan. God is in charge. There is a plan.

When it seems like the powers that be use their power for evil.

When we survey some of the famous rulers in world history, it appears that  those in charge don’t care about the people under their charge. How many people died because of the decisions of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and the list goes on and on. How many people did Rome crucify?

The history of the world is a history of people using power over others. The history of the world is a history of people in power using power to stay in power. This often does not go well for those not in power. We see this with Herod’s plot to kill the infant Jesus which did not end well for those in Bethlehem.

Jesus speaks about power as found in Luke, chapter twelve:

“Dear friends, don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.

Luke 12:4-5 (NLT)

The most the powers that be can do to us is kill us. That is all they can do. Their power is therefore limited! This is true of the people that might kill us, and thankfully I cannot think of any. This is also true of the diseases and afflictions that might kill us, and unfortunately I can think of many. God’s power, however, is infinite. God can allow for us to be separated from him forever, or can raise us to live in his presence forever. Now that is power! So don’t fear people, fear God. That being said, Jesus immediately went on to say:

“What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.

Luke 12:6-7 (NLT)

Fear God, but don’t be afraid of God. God loves us. The ones using terror against others are the ones who need to be concerned!

According to the angel, there is good, hopeful news: To you is born this day the Lord.

Lord means “master,” and it means that neither Caesar, nor Herod, nor Hitler, nor Stalin is lord, but Jesus is. Their power is limited.

“Lord” was also the word that stood in for God’s name when God’s people read the Hebrew Scriptures. Even today, when Jewish people come across God’s name, they usually say “Adonai,” meaning “Lord”. This is reflected in our English translations of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) whenever LORD is in all capitals. It is also reflected in the Greek translation that the people of New Testament times would have been familiar with. So when the angel announces the birth of the “Lord”, there is a strong hint, especially when taken together with other passages, that this baby is not just one true master among many pretenders, but God Himself.

It may seem like those in power often use power for evil, draining us of hope when we discover that the powers that be are not for us but for themselves. But the angel tells us that this small baby is Lord, this Jesus has power. This infant was evidence that the Powerful One is for us and not against us.

In Conclusion

This can be a hopeless time of year for many. It is said that more people get depressed at this time than any other. Perhaps it is the shorter days, the busyness, or the expectations we place upon ourselves to provide and experience that “perfect” Christmas. It might be that all the glitter and happy songs do not match what is going on in our lives.

This may be a bleak season of your life. This may well be a season of bad news in our world. It is quite normal to feel perplexed by it all, to lose hope. We don’t want to minimise that bad news or gloss over it. But neither do we want to miss the good news.

The identity of Jesus as announced by the angel, of being Saviour, Messiah, and Lord replaces the hopelessness of how things seem with the hope of how things really are.